Cut Off (Abgeschnitten) (2018)

Adapted from Sebastian Fitzek and Michael Tsokos’ best selling novel Abgeschnitten (2012), Cut Off (Abgeschnitten) takes its writer/director Christian Alvart back to the serial killer psychothriller terrains of his earlier feature Antibodies (Antikörper, 2005). 

The film’s opening premise is as high-concept as they come: Paul Herzfeld (Moritz Bleibtreu), a divorced professor of forensic pathology working at Berlin’s Special Unit for Grave Crimes, finds concealed within a woman’s heavily mutilated cadaver a piece of paper bearing the forename and mobile phone number of his own estranged 17-year-old daughter Hannah (Barbara Prakopenka). When he first calls the number, he is informed by  the terrified Hannah on the other end of the line that she has been kidnapped, and that he must tell no one, and await further instructions from one ‘Erik’. When, some time later, Paul calls the number again, his daughter’s phone is answered by confused cartoonist Linda (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), who is on a beach far away on the island of Heligoland besides the corpse of somebody wearing a shirt clearly labelled ‘Erik’.

Faced with the abduction of his daughter by a vicious paedophile/serial killer (Lars Eidinger, Personal Shopper, 2016), Paul – an academic with anger issues – scribbles down a list of possible response strategies. An abortive phone call to his holidaying ex-wife leads him to cross off ‘ransom’ from his list, leaving only ‘revenge’. Cut Off is indeed a story of revenge, although revenge of a far more complex and convoluted nature than hot-headed Paul originally has in mind – a revenge that exposes the tensions between public and private notions of justice against inveterate, unreformable criminality. And while much of the focus is on mad dads, this is counterbalanced by a story of a young woman finding her way from terrified victimhood to fearless agency.  

Called Cut Off all at once for Paul’s alienation from his own family, for the appendages (hands, tongue) missing from several of the corpses, and also because a ferocious wind storm has made Heligoland inaccessible from the mainland, Alvart’s film sees a desperate Paul having to give Linda step-by-step instructions over the phone in how to perform an autopsy, in what she rightly recognises as “a treasure hunt, with bodies”, as he hopes to find a clue to his daughter’s location. This use of Linda as a proxy pathologist invigorates repeat scenes of forensic examination that might otherwise have been clichéd, as the novice Linda’s disgust now modulates the viewers’ (and contrasts with Paul’s seen-it-all-before experience). Yet as the plot thickens and the stakes rise, it will become clear that Paul is not the only character operating remotely, as others pursue a plan so watertight that not even an unexpected three-day storm can stop it unfolding – even if it does require a series of happy accidents and coincidences to help its racing progress to the climax.

Cut Off falls into the same territory as Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991), Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000), Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009) and Hans Herbot’s The Treatment (2015), as parallel plots and resonating histories converge on a serial killer case. Though long, it rattles along with a thrilling pace – although once the storm’s onrush has settled and the final credits have rolled, forensic examination of the narrative’s corpse on the slab reveals different parts whose overall coherence is perhaps as hard to swallow as the plastic interior of the Kinder Surprise egg found lodged in one cadaver’s throat.

© Anton Bitel