The first scenes of Stefan Ruzowitsky’s Cold Hell shows two separate women in Vienna having a bad work night. One is a sex worker. Another is Ozge (Violetta Schurawlow), who has a nasty surprise waiting for her after what seems like one endless shift. She’s a cab driver who, out of curiosity, opens her bathroom window. She sees the sex worker in the apartment across her, the latter’s body having burns on it. Beside it is the man (Sammy Sheik) responsible for the burns, and he doesn’t like witnesses.
Ruzowitsky thus shows that man’s hunt for Ozge and her possible retaliation against him. In doing so he borrows from other directors, as one would in genre films like this. At its best, think of Scorsese on 21st century adrenaline. Ozge’s job description is an on the nose reference to New Hollywood’s most famous outcast. The hero and the damsel coexist within this strong female character. However, Ruzowitsky also populates Cold Hell with smaller heroes and smaller damsels. There are characters who fall under both categories and have commonalities.
Martin Ambrosch’s script doesn’t readily give us the killer’s motivations. This gives a lot of space for Ozge’s wants and tendencies as well as those around her. Her cousin in law and boss, Samir (Robert Palfrader), worries about where her cousin Ranya (Verena Altenberger) is. Turns out that she’s cheating on him with multiple men. Ambrosch’s script paints his characters in the same weak and avaricious light, take from that what you will. Ranya’s infidelities is similar to Ozge’s short fuse is similar to the mysterious man’s desire to kill.
To a tomboy like Ozge, Samir and Ranya the problematic model of conventional life. They’re just a few of Cold Hell‘s supporting characters who exist to make Ozge feel like she an outcast. That feeling magnifies when she’s on the run from the mysterious man who turns out to be a serial killer. The movie now juggles two main plot arcs, one is to survive the serial killer within Vienna’s colourfully lit streets. Another is to find a person who makes Ozge feel like she belongs with someone.
There a problematic way in which Ozge’s damsel and hero dynamic unfolds. One way of looking at the film is that the hero side of her wins out. She is a Muay Thai practitioner after all who may get to practice what she learns on the killer. However, there’s a worrying subplot involving her and Officer Christian Steiner (Tobias Moretti). When she calls the cops he focuses more on her Turkishness than the crime next door. Their relationship becomes a teachable moment for sheltered Europeans meeting their first Turks.
Another gripe I have against Ruzowitsky’s film is his occasional aesthetic decisions. There are flashes of neon purple or blue, a dated way of showing the seedy elements within the city. And he balances that occasional cool aesthetic with natural bodies. And yes, blood splatter. Blood spilled from these bodies that inadvertently falls under his fetishistic gaze. I’m still grappling with a genre that exploits the gender based violence that some of these characters face. The only consolation is watching Ozge fight back, which she does many times.
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