Kevin Kopacka's meta-natured genre throwback, greatly atmospheric and narratively loose, is never quite what it appears
The biggest issue infecting modern horror over the past few years (particularly so-called “elevated horror”) has been a tendency to make the subtext just text. Instead of blood-spattered killings speaking to explosive catharsis and spooky hauntings to unspoken desires, everything is labelled “trauma,” the symbolism and meaning of it all readily identifiable for your A-Level essay, all A24-approved in advance.
Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes starts out firmly in this mode. A mysterious, buttoned-up couple journey to a dilapidated mansion in the German countryside, sometime in the post-war era. It is an inheritance passed down to the woman, but her husband – a stiff conservative type – sees it as a waste of time. Far better to fix it up and sell it for a profit. These early sequences are stylishly directed, with stunning use of single light sources in a damp, musty-looking manor, harking back to the glory days of Euro horror – the ghost of giallo master Mario Bava is certainly present here.
Soon, though, we start to get into the nitty-gritty of the couple’s relationship, and suddenly the film’s themes appear clear as daylight: conservative and upper-class post-war Germans with repressed psychosexual desires acting as stand-ins for the unanswered ghosts of Nazism, and vampirism as an allegory for patriarchal relationships leeching the life out of a couple. It looks great, but ultimately feels hollow and obvious.
And then… Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes pulls the rug out from under you. Without wishing to give too much away, it’s revealed we’re on a film set, led by director-screenwriter couple Gregor and Eva (Jeff Wilbusch and Anna Platen), themselves effectively stand-ins for the real-life couple behind the film Kevin Kopacka and Lili Villányi. Domestic strife abounds on this film set, the couple arguing over the ending, Gregor eyeing up the film’s scream queen Margot (Luisa Taraz), tensions bubbling when the cast lavish praise on the director and ignore his creative partner.
This extreme meta-ness would be annoyingly quirky if the film didn’t commit itself fully down the rabbit hole, unearthing a basic truth about nearly all relationships – that each party has its own narrative about said relationship, and when the two don’t match, tensions flourishes. The argument about doing the dishes isn’t really about doing the dishes: it’s about something deeper. The argument about the film’s ending isn’t really about the film’s ending: it’s about why the power dynamics of the relationship feel unfair, and how to reel that back in.
Amidst all this is a certain sense of narrative looseness and a smoky, psychedelia-induced atmosphere. The film continually plays switcheroos on its audience, never quite revealing its full intentions or purpose, constantly probing this way and that. The obviousness of the first third is all part of the ploy, winding viewers up for one thing and then throwing you in the other direction. The gorgeous Euro horror aesthetic, making the most of a small budget, coupled with the film's tonal confidence, is hugely impressive. An enjoyable, tricksy work from Kopacka and Villányi, who both clearly know how to mine personal stories for juicy genre filmmaking.
Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes is released in UK cinemas on December 2.Where to watch