“The people we were once are dead,” says Eva (Maja Lehrer), one of the two central characters in director Carolina Hellsgård’s post-apocalyptic horror/drama Endzeit – Ever After. “We shouldn’t mourn them.”
Such a sentiment is rarely expressed so pointedly on screen, even in this most fatalistic of film genres. While survivors of these movies’ various types of cataclysms are most often driven by some powerful – if far-fetched – hope of someday returning to their normal lives, the young, hard-bitten Eva possesses a rare understanding of exactly what she shares with both the deceased and with the brain-dead, plague-stricken zombies that have all but overtaken her world.
That sense of perspective, and the way it’s articulated and explored through the relationship of two very well-drawn female characters, is what makes Endzeit – Ever After worthwhile viewing even for those who (understandably) feel that, by now, they’ve already seen just about everything that a “zombie movie” could possibly have to offer. The German-language film was made almost entirely by female creative talent and features women in both of its major and most of its supporting roles, and that isn’t simply some gimmick to sell an inconsequential genre movie to an equality-minded audience. Instead, Hellsgård and writer Olivia Vieweg have crafted a morbidly beautiful, uniquely character-focused, and decidedly feminine take on familiar apocalyptic tropes, and while it doesn’t always entirely deliver on a narrative or visceral level, Endzeit – Ever After emotional resonance – and the singularity of its worldview – is undeniable.
The film alerts viewers to its uncommon approach right from the opening narration, the language of which (“a plague has descended upon earth”) suggests some enigmatic, quasi-biblical basis for the catastrophe that has decimated humanity. We don’t immediately learn much more about the world aside from the fact that the few remaining unaffected humans have been confined to two cities: Jena, whose residents desperately search for a cure to end the devastation, and Weimar, a heavily-fortified place where the raging, bloodthirsty plague-zombies are simply shot on sight.
“…the few remaining unaffected humans have been confined to two cities: Jena…and Weimar…”
It’s the latter city in which protagonist Vivi (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) has found herself trapped ever since the plague erupted two years prior. Fragile, withdrawn, and prone to self-harm, Vivi is haunted by the loss of her little sister in the chaos, and she seeks to escape from Weimar even though she knows there’s basically nowhere left to escape to. Meanwhile, the tough-skinned, cynical Eva spends her days on the perimeter fence that protects the living from the legion of predatory undead outside, becoming ever more proficient in dispassionately killing them as the days wear on.
Following a gruesome incident that occurs when Vivi volunteers for duty repairing the fence, both she and Eva – unbeknownst to one another – end up stowing away aboard the same unmanned supply train headed for Jena, each of them in likely hopeless pursuit of something to heal her deep-rooted damage. The shared journey that transpires feels something like a female-centric, coming-of-age road movie, albeit one that’s regularly punctuated by brutal attacks from marauding zombies.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Leah Striker, and balancing its grimness with an entrancing quality of fairy tale-esque lyricism (as suggested by the film’s English-language title), Endzeit – Ever After is at its best during the quiet moments in which the very different Vivi and Eva come to gradually understand not only one another but also the futility of holding on to the things that they respectively cling to. Both the waifish, soft-spoken Kohlhof and Lehrer, whose wardrobe and demeanor somewhat evoke a young Linda Hamilton from Terminator 2, are outstanding and perfectly cast, and the alternately fraught and mutually protective dynamic of their characters’ relationship is compelling even from their first moments on screen together. They’re served quite well by Vieweg’s stark, thoughtful, often cutting dialogue; there’s little of the genre’s utilitarian, “here’s what we need to do” type of expository blather to contend with, here, and even better, Endzeit – Ever After’s philosophical underpinnings go much deeper than the expected “humanity is the real monster” banality that these films too often mistake for a unique or profound thought. Even without the zombies, the substance and subtext of Vivi and Eva’s arc would likely be enough to carry a feature film on its own.
“…serious, contemplative, ethereal tone…in the gravity and sympathy it affords its characters…”
That said, however, Endzeit – Ever After runs a bit short on gut-level thrills; aside from a few harrowing flashbacks to the first waves of the plague and a brutal close-quarters confrontation in the attic of an abandoned country house, the mayhem on display is otherwise mostly muted and not terribly impactful. The zombies themselves have the relentless agility of those in the 28 Days Later franchise, but they rarely seem as threatening, primal, or unstoppable as they ought to – though Hellsgård does occasionally use them in service of some strikingly macabre images, such as that of a decaying, almost sad-looking (but still unmistakably threatening) undead woman foraging around in a tattered wedding dress. The film also suffers from some murkily established, illogical narrative choices in its second half that – temporarily, at least – slightly undermine, more so than support, the careful character development that typifies most of the proceedings. Thankfully, though, the filmmakers do pull things together for a satisfying ending that’s as lovely as it is thematically on point.
With its obvious outpouring of talent and consideration both in front of and behind the camera, Endzeit – Ever After more than earns its serious, contemplative, ethereal tone; surprisingly not so much in its story or in its action, but rather in the gravity and sympathy it affords its characters. Humankind, in Endzeit – Ever After’s universe, might be in its final throes, but as Vivi and Eva make clear, the possibility of growth, acceptance, and some kind of simpler, purer form of togetherness can nevertheless live on in its absence.
Endzeit – Ever After (2018) Directed by Carolina Hellsgård. Written by Olivia Vieweg. Starring Gro Swantje Kohlhof, Maja Lehrer, Trine Dyrholm, Yûho Yamashita, Barbara Philipp, Marco Albrecht
7.5 out of 10