In a small, turn of the century German port, adolescent Laurin (Dóra Szinetár) is on the verge of becoming a young woman. One night, while journeying home, her pregnant mother Flora (Brigitte Karner) encounters a shadowy figure carrying a sack that holds a dead gipsy boy, whose murder Laurin has glimpsed in an apparent dream. The next morning, Flora is found dead beneath the bridge. After the funeral, her sailor husband Arne (János Derzsi) returns to sea, despite the pleas of his daughter and mother Olga (Hédy Temessy). A year later, another sailor, Mr. Van Rees (Károly Eperjes) returns home and takes a position as the new schoolteacher. Van Rees stirs nascent feelings in young Laurin, but shows more interest in her shy friend, Stefan (Barnabas Tóth) whose widowed mother, the vivacious Frau Berghaus (Katalin Sir) also makes a play for the handsome stranger. When Stefan goes missing, Laurin turns detective and uncovers the horrible truth.
Like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) and The Company of Wolves (1984), this fascinating period thriller uses fairytale-horror imagery to weave an hypnotic fable about adolescent traumas and sexual longing. However, the balance between fantasy and reality is more delicate here. The narrative features a jumbled-up continuity, with flashbacks and flash-forwards punctuated by fantastical daydreams. It’s confusing at times, but genuinely challenging and compels from start to finish. German director Robert Sigl (who at twenty-five became the youngest director to win the Bavarian Film Award) makes good use of the serene, yet somehow unsettling Bavarian scenery: those silvery lakes, bewitching dark forests and eerie gothic castles.
There is a queasy, paedophilic aspect to the relationship between killer and child heroine, as he spies her bathing and she courts him innocently with flowers and song. Although the killer’s motivations are revealed as emotional, not sexual, a bond remains between the two, with both characters scarred by parental neglect. In this Freudian nightmare, grownups young minds with hypocrisy and religious paranoia, while - other than Laurin - the children behave no better than animals, taunting and bullying the frail Stefan. Yet while everyone else flounders, Laurin triumphs with a combination of resilient goodness and wisdom beyond her years. While the acting is solid all around, the charming Dóra Szinetár is especially strong and seems to blossom into a young woman before our eyes.
The film is beautifully shot and cinematographer Nyika Jancsó has an eye for creepy fairytale colours akin to Mario Bava. Laurin’s precognitive nightmares are full of unsettling imagery such as the blood-splattered doll, her mother’s death-bed bathed in bilious greens or hellish reds, the photographs that seem to come alive, or the black kite and dog that exist as harbingers of death. Following a grisly discovery, the killer’s bone-chilling howl signals a climax lifted straight from Little Red Riding Hood, as Laurin lures the killer into her toy-laden attic and effectively comes of age.