LFF Review: Hut In The Woods: Barking Mad

HUT IN THE WOODS (TBC): At The London Film Festival Sunday 16th October and Wednesday 19th October. General Release TBC.

Mental illness seems to be a theme at this year’s London Film Festival with Take Shelter and Martha Marcy May Marlene being two notable highlights.  Also worth a look is Hut In The Woods, a German film which takes a look at how quickly someone’s life can unravel and asks some pertinent questions about the way in which we care for the mentally ill.

Peter Schneider plays Martin, a gifted mathematician who loses his job, apartment and girlfriend after a brief spell in psychiatric care.  With no way of supporting himself, Martin becomes homeless and sleeps rough in abandoned buildings where he meets Viktor (Timur Massold), a Ukrainian boy recently orphaned after his mother overdosed.

They quickly form a friendship despite their language barrier (Martin doesn’t speak Ukrainian, Viktor doesn’t speak German) and escape the city into the woods where they build a rudimentary hut out of discarded plastic and logs. Here they manage to live sustainably, collecting glass bottles for change with which they buy food.  It’s not easy but it’s idyllic compared to their previous life surrounded by rubble and the violence of Berlin street gangs.

It’s here that Martin’s life starts to look up.  He comes to enjoy his new life and the sheer exhilaration of being outside.  He runs through the forests with obvious glee, and climbs trees to watch the stumbling rat race which he left behind; he takes joy in his friendship with Viktor and they come to depend on each other.  But just as things start to look up, adversity rears its ugly head.

Hut In The Woods adopts a progressive attitude to mental illness and plays off the need for medication and institutionalisation against the need for compassion and friendship.  Martin’s illness improves dramatically when he’s allowed to fend for himself – being fired from his job simply because of his employer’s fear of a relapse is ironically the catalyst for his downward turn. His friendship with Viktor allows him to almost forget problems that would surely have multiplied in isolation.

Schneider is excellent as Martin, a shy gentle man whose transformation from suited worker bee to grizzled bearded hobo is extremely convincing.  He has some great chemistry with his child co-star Massold – their relationship makes perfect sense – two individuals united by adversity and the need for a companion; a complex and endearing emerging friendship.

It builds slowly, ramping up the intrigue and fascination, gradually drawing you in to its storyline and characters and offering some food for thought on a tricky subject.  Unfortunately, it takes a downward turn faster than Alton Towers’ Oblivion when it substitutes a convincing ending with implausible, nauseating 20 minutes of schmaltz followed by a completely unnecessary twist.  It’s a shame, because without the twist, it stands up as a confident meditation on psychiatric fragility and friendship.  With it, it feels like a cheap way to squeeze out some last minute thrills from an otherwise good film.