Fantasia Review: ‘Free Country’ is a stark, engaging mystery

Reconciling the past with a new and different present is a difficult task. A radical change in circumstances can upend your entire world and all the rules you live by. This is, in part, the setup for Free Country, director Christian Alvart’s murder mystery thriller.

Set in Eastern Germany just two years after Germany was no longer two countries, two detectives come to a small town to investigate the disappearance of two teenage girls. Patrick, the detective from the west, is an idealist moulded by the democracy he’s lived under his entire life. Markus, the detective from the east, is a brute, with a dark past and cynicism held over from a career under Soviet rule.

These opposing perspectives obviously create conflict between the two men as they try to solve the mystery, as each is forced to examine themselves and question whether they are truly the men they believe themselves to be.

The story shifts almost immediately from missing girls to murdered girls and the men are faced with a population who are nervous –to say the least– about speaking to authorities after so many years under authoritarian rule. Patrick approaches them expecting trust, Markus expects deceit.

Each of them is dedicated to solving the case, but each of them ends up learning from the other the limits of how far they are willing to go to do so. As they dig into the clues, they, of course, find that the mystery goes greater depths than either of them could have imagined.

It might be for the best that I never saw 2014’s Marshland, the Spanish film that Free Country is a remake of. I understand the basic plot and themes of living in a post-fascist world to be very similar, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to see Alvart examine those from a German perspective.

Each of the lead actors is great, but it’s Felix Kramer as Markus, who steals the show. He’s a brute, but he might be a bad man for good reasons. Does that work? That I will let you decide for yourself, but it’s fascinating watching him portray that struggle, and whether Markus will let his past define him or not.

Alvart has created a taut mystery with characters easy to become invested in, and does double duty as the cinematographer, photographing the stark German winter with grand, gorgeous aerial shots and a colour scheme as cold and disquieting as the story itself.

Whether you are a fan of mystery stories or good character drama, Free Country is not one to miss.