By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Violetta Schurawlow, Tobias Moretti and Sammy Sheik
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky
Written by Martin Ambrosch
While some critics are acting like UNSANE is the first thriller with relevance to the #MeToo generation, a German horror film that’s just as applicable has premiered on the Shudder streaming service. COLD HELL is a no-holds-barred study of a woman navigating an environment rife with male hostility, though first and foremost it’s a full-blooded genre piece with knockout setpieces and a kick-ass heroine.
In its opening moments, COLD HELL deceptively comes on like a typically lurid Euroshocker, all rain-slicked surfaces, saturated neon colors and a nearly naked woman being torturously murdered. But at the same time, it introduces us to Özge (Violetta Schurawlow), a cab driver who doesn’t take it well when men address her with four-letter epithets. Her first scene explicitly links this random male vocal aggression with the brutal physical acts of its psychopath—and then Özge becomes directly involved with his crimes when it turns out that this slaying has occurred in the apartment across from hers. She witnesses its aftermath—and unfortunately for her, he witnesses her witnessing him.
The villain pointedly dresses in traditional “male” garb—a suit and tie—which further links him to the masculine oppression Özge faces. She’s condescended to by both the cops who investigate the murder and the guys at the gym where she practices Thai boxing, and from which she gets kicked out for striking back when her opponent plays dirty. This has led her to put up an emotional wall between herself and the rest of the world; “You can’t love anyone,” her ex-boyfriend admonishes at one point. Yet she has enough moments where she lets her guard down to become a relatable heroine, one who is not overtly hostile, but has understandably developed a tough exterior and tougher fighting abilities. (Midway through the film, a visit to her father makes it clear where Özge was forced to pick up her survival skills.)
She does acquire one ally: detective Christian Steiner (Tobias Moretti), who at first clashes with Özge before they come to respect the ways they can help each other, both in cracking the horrific case and dealing with family issues. The latter are a key secondary subject in COLD HELL, and Martin Ambrosch’s ambitious screenplay also mixes in themes of national identity—relating to both Özge and, we eventually learn, the murderer as well—while assuring these ingredients complement rather than overwhelm the central drama and tension of Özge’s ordeal. It’s a heady stew that’s stirred and heated to a boil by director Stefan Ruzowitzky, who won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his drama THE COUNTERFEITERS and here makes a big step up from his previous horror outing ANATOMIE. Maintaining a swift pace and, with cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels, a rich and textured visual palette, he punctuates Özge’s compelling story with horrifying murder scenes and heart-pounding action setpieces (kudos to editor Britta Nahler for those).
At the center of it all is Schurawlow, delivering a ferocious, unsentimental portrait of a woman facing a harsh world that tries to knock her down at every turn, and knocks it right back. With her mix of determination, physical prowess and occasional vulnerability, the actress (who’s come a long way since making her screen debut in the German gore schlocker CANNIBAL DINER) announces herself as a major talent. If she doesn’t become a breakout international star, there’s no justice in movieland.