What goes around comes around. Steven Spiel’s feature debut was originally called Living Space, and has been travelling the festival circuit under that name. This title is also, in its context, overtly german(e), both as a phrase that, from the opening text onwards, repeatedly recurs within the film, and as a translation of the term Lebensraum used by Nazis for their programme of extreme territorial expansion (in a film that, again right from the start, abounds in Nazi imagery). The film is also, for the most part, set in and around the living space of a house (complete with squeaky swings outside and creaky doors within) in the remote hinterlands of Southern Bavaria. Yet by the time it is in theatres or on home release, Living Space shall instead have the more pedestrian, on-the-nose title Nazi Undead, presumably to affiliate the film clearly not just with the horror genre, but more specifically with the subgenre of SS zombie flicks. That is selling the film rather short – but at least it serves to wrong-foot the viewer, practically guaranteeing disorientation and surprise to match those experienced by the film’s heroine Ashley (Georgia Chara).
After a brief prologue of Nazi newsreels, a jittery, juddery title sequence offering an impressionistic montage of a home interior filled with Nazi memorabilia, and a confusing sequence that tracks from behind a young, distressed woman who moans at a strangely subdued volume as she runs desperately in the dark towards a car parked in a field, Living Space introduces us to two American tourists travelling by car through Bavaria. Although he is played, like all the characters in this film, by an Australian (in a film that, though set in Germany, was shot in Australia), blonde lunk Brad (Leigh Scully) is the Pop Art (or Rocky Horror Picture Show) incarnation of an archetypal white American, from the varsity jacket that he wears right down to his very name. His girlfriend Ashley is clearly already wearying of her travelling companion, as their relationship enters a moribund routine of minor irritation and recrimination. It is clear that the rot has already set in with this directionless couple: “You don’t know where we’re going, do you?” Ashely asks, herself reluctant even to be on this trip; and he accuses her of “acting like a whore” at a party the other night. So when their car will not start in a dark field in the middle of nowhere, one might perceive this as a metaphor for a relationship that is stalled, lost and going nowhere – except in bitter circles.
We know from the prologue what will happen next: a woman staggers to the car’s rear, where Brad finds her dead, with a Swastika carved into her flesh. Unsure what to do, Brad and ‘Ash’ (as Brad calls Ashley, marking her as the female counterpart to the lost-in-time hero of the Evil Dead series) set off on foot to an isolated home nearby, only to find themselves trapped not just in a haunted house, but also in a Twilight Zone where the traumas of the past keep replaying in an endlessly repeating now. The horror here is strong and bloody and grotesque, as these rural environs prove a charnel house of ideological outrage and domestic dysfunction.
As accusations of being a whore repeat themselves (now in German), we are not sure whether we are witnessing the ghosts of Nazi history (preserved in old photos and flickering film reels) reechoing in the present, or a couple’s arrested status translating itself into the local language (as well as the language of genre). It is an ambiguity which makes this film’s collapsing of time and space resonate with horrors both historical and psychological, as Spiel crafts an elegant if uncanny narrative trap, whose nearest analogues are Christopher Smith’s Triangle (2009) and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s diptych of Resolution (2012) and The Endless (2017), but whose stench of SSploitation also reflects the alarming reemergence of Nazi Weltanschauung into alt-right/Neo-Nazi politics today. Somehow, we are all now trapped in that horrifying, irrational loop.
Perhaps, more than either of this film’s titles, it is Ashley’s necklace – with its prominent infinity symbol (∞) – that best encapsulates what is to come – as are the bizarre sort-of premonitions that occasionally flood her brain in a wash of flickery images. For amid all its panicky fright and flight, its bodily desecrations and ghostly returns of the repressed, Living Space presents its horrors in infernally looping circles, going and coming around in an elegantly Sadean manner that allows for no escape. Here, it is not territory on a map so much as the human heart and soul that an ever-resurgent Nazism seeks to occupy all for itself.
© Anton Bitel