Austrian films have been the secret stars of the German-speaking landscape in recent years, not just because of the eccentric Michael Haneke and his Oscar-winning drama Amour. In artistic terms, many of these usually indie pictures have outperformed the more expensive productions from the bigger neighboring country. Lately, one of the mainstays of Austrian cinema has been the Brenner comedy mysteries by director Wolfgang Murnberger. Based on the novels by bestselling author Wolf Haas, these movies impress with their quirky mixture of grotesque crimes and typical Austrian humor. As the third installment of the series, The Bone Man has been one of the most successful movies made in the Alpine Republic. In other parts of the world, however, the film has largely flown under the radar.
A pimp is thrown out of a window of a Bratislava brothel but his friend (Stipe Ergec) is able to spot the license plate of the culprit’s vehicle. Not much later, car-leasing company owner Berti (Simon Schwarz) hires scruffy private eye Brenner (Josef Hader) to collect debts from painter Horvath. He allegedly resides at Löschenkohl inn in Styria. When the detective arrives there, he receives nothing but ill humor and silence. Neither the innkeeper (Josef Bierbichler) nor the waitress (Pia Hierzegger) seems to be all too willing to give him any answers. Yet as he is about to return to Vienna, Paul (Christoph Luser), the innkeeper’s, asks him to conduct him an observation. His father disposes of a noticeable lot of money from the establishment.
Initially Brenner refuses, but when he meets Paul’s wife Birgit (Birgit Minichmayr), he decides to stay. As he remains in the Styrian village, more and more inconsistencies pop up – and the investigator also has his hands full with the tender feelings that develop between him and the junior innkeeper’s wife. Where is Horvath? Who does a cut-off finger belong to? What does the old Löschenkohl have to hide, and what does his young Eastern European lover Valeria (Dorka Gryllus) have to do with all the puzzling events? At the local masquerade ball, everything is revealed.
The Bone Man assembles some of Austria’s biggest stars. Josef Hader, in particular, has made himself a name as both a dramatic actor and a standup comedian and satirist. He is probably the best-known of the bunch, together with Hungarian star Dorka Gryllus, who also appeared in Fatih Akin’s 2009 comedy Soul Kitchen. Hader is the most important acting ingredient of The Bone Man. The movie wouldn’t work without his excellent portrayal of the grumpy Brenner, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the cast isn’t just as good. In fact, there’s not a single bad performance in the Wolfgang Murnberger film.
Brilliant acting, however, isn’t the only positive about The Bone Man. In fact, apart from its stars, its grotesque black humor is perhaps the movie’s biggest strength. It’s not a simple whodunit, but an intriguing mélange of provincial life, murder, and blackmail, seasoned to taste with typical Austrian flavor and wit. The Alpine Republic’s been the setting of some legendary Hollywood cinema so far – Carol Reed’s The Third Man, the James Bond adventure The Living Daylights, and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, for starters. Yet it’s refreshing to see that the film isn’t set in Vienna with its own special charm for once.
Despite being filed under ‘crime movies,’ The Bone Man is probably first and foremost about love. Brenner as the prototypical likable Austrian antihero is as cynical and moody as ever. He can’t help himself but treat others in his trademark amicable manner, be it his Viennese friend Berti or the somewhat hostile innkeeper Löschenkohl and his wimpy little boy Paul. The only person exempt from his congeniality is Birgit. Although she’s married, her presence that slowly but surely melts the iceberg that is the surly investigator. When in her company, he easily forgets about his assignment and prefers to smoke a joint with her.
In this regard, The Bone Man extends beyond his forerunners from the Brenner universe. The love angle is a completely new thing that can’t be found in the other Wolfgang Murnberger – Josef Hader movies Come Sweet Death and Silentium. It adds a different layer to the usual ingredients of sharp, sometimes even rude and ribald dialog with pointed remarks, grotesque cruelties, droll characters, and black humor. As in the other two films, horror and laughter are close to each other. The Bone Man should therefore not be treated as a romance, because tender-hearted minds might not be able to stomach some of the images.
If you’re open to films that don’t adhere to the typical genre restrictions and stop at nothing, the novel adaptation by Wolfgang Murnberger and his star Josef Hader is for you. That’s not to say that The Bone Man doesn’t have its flaws. The opening sequence heavily draws from American big-budget television shows and some moments may feel a little jarred and out of place. The acting and the rest of the movie’s quirks, however, make more than up for it. Apart from Josef Hader (who also wrote the screenplay together with the director), Josef Bierbichler and Birgit Minichmayr stand out in particular. Christoph Luser gives a creepy performance as Löschenkohl junior, too.
In case you’re a perfect stranger to Austrian films and need a starting point for your cinematic journey to the Alpine Republic, don’t hesitate putting The Bone Man on top of your list. As far as modern movies are concerned, it’s probably right up there, together with the original German-language version of Michael Haneke’s psychological thriller Funny Games. We don’t even care a fig that Wolfgang Murnberger’s feature can’t really decide what it wants to be. Is it a farce in the vein of the Coen Brothers, a Hitchcockian black comedy, or a proper thriller? It doesn’t matter. The Bone Man simply is that awesome.