Undergods (2020)

“Maria tells me you write,” says Hans (Eric Godon), some way into Chino Moya’s feature debut Undergods. “What about?”

“Possible worlds,” replies Johann (Tadhg Murphy) “I don’t think you’ll get it. Maria says you don’t read much.”

What neither of these two men – nor indeed Hans’ daughter Maria (Tanya Reynolds) – quite realises is that they themselves are being storied in a possible world not quite like our own. Hans is German, and freely switches between his native tongue and English. His daughter speaks English with an English accent, as does Hans’ secretary, while Johann, despite the name, is audibly Irish – and yet the strange crepuscular city that they inhabit (and that their narrator says “no longer exists”) appears to be Middle or Eastern European. The Bulgarian word for gold, ‘zlato’, is seen prominently written in Roman letters on a jeweller’s stall, other signs are in cyrillic script, while Hans’ maid, his assessor and the ‘foreigner’ who consults him speak English in a range of European accents, and a prostitute speaks a Slavic-sounding language. Much as it is hard to make these different signifiers of place cohere, it is equally all too easy to become lost in this labyrinthine world – not least because of its dislocated relationship to the film’s other storied locales. 

Undergods is something akin to an anthology film, except that its different tales, far from forming a neat succession, are embedded within one another, or made irrationally to overlap, so that their interconnections – both in terms of narrative transitions and recurrent themes – are established as a convoluted enigma for the viewer to solve. It starts in a post-apocalyptic future – a foggy city of decaying brutalism through which K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig) drive collecting the dead (and occasionally the living) in their truck, and exchanging accounts of their dreams along the way. K narrates a recurring nightmare, a ‘ghost’ story set in a “place somewhere far, far away from here, far away from this dump”, about middle-class, middle-aged couple Ron and Ruth (Michael Gould, Hayley Carmichael) who live in a new apartment building. Their discontent and dysfunction are exposed by the arrival of a friendly guest (Ned Dennehy) whose very name, Harry, evokes the similarly sinister set-up of Dominik Moll’s black comedy from 2000 Harry, He’s Here To Help (at one point, Dennehy’s Harry even says, “I’m here to help”). From this brief encounter, sorrow, despair and death will come, but perhaps they were already haunting this relationship.

Moving in next door in the apartment building is Octavius (Khalid Abdalla), who tells his young daughter Horatia (Maddison Whelan) a bedtime story about a ‘monster’. This will in fact turn out to be the story (set in yet another place) of another father and daughter, Hans and Maria (with whom this review began). Octavius’ story will stop halfway through when Horatia falls asleep, but will then mysteriously continue without Octavius’ telling, as Hans’ fairytale world suddenly crashes headlong into K and Z’s. This leads, after a horrific segue, to the film’s longest story, which like Ron and Ruth’s, concerns a couple whose unhappiness is brought into focus by the arrival of a guest. Dull middle manager Dominic (Adrian Rawlins) lives with his wife Rachel (Kate Dickie) and stepson Will (Jonathan Case) in a suburban home – but when 15 years after he vanished, Rachel’s former husband Sam (Sam Louwyck) returns in a mute and near catatonic state, Rachel takes it upon herself to rebuild her lost past and love, making Ron’s – and her own – little world fall violently apart.

There is the brush of Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz and George Orwell in all these oppressive cityscapes. There are touches of J.G. Ballard in these drab, concrete environments, these soulless apartment blocks and the intimations of cannibalism. There is a dash of Roy Andersson in all these episodic wide shots, the surreal renderings of the mundane, and the unexpected shifts into Holocaust imagery. Everything is filled with an uncanny dread, while also being uncomfortably funny – and Wojciech Golczewski’s feyly blippy synth score only adds to the overall ambience of alienation.

Despite the diversity of Moya’s possible, parallel worlds, there are certain motifs that remain consistent through them all. For here “sometimes”, as Harry puts it, fragile family structures “can crumble”, and there is an easy slippage of, as well as between, domestic patriarchies and fascistic dystopias. Here home life is drudgery, here work life is slavery (sometimes literally), here any kind of redemption is a lottery, here everyone plays their complicit part in the factory-like system, and serves as underdog to someone else in a hierarchy of class and power. As all these characters are ruined no less by their own greed, jealousy, dissatisfaction and anger than by the godlike interventions from the decidedly ungodly authors of their life stories, Moya brings a bleak absurdism to his apocalyptic explorations of the human condition. For while all these oneiric stories, and stories-within-stories, may show familial and societal breakdown ‘in another world’ (or other worlds), they also reflect, en abyme, a broader entropy in our own.

© Anton Bitel