Listen, we’re all in quarantine so what are you gonna do, watch the same movies you’ve watched SEVEN BAZILLION TIMES?
No. You need some fresh content, new stuff. And the best stuff hiding on Netflix is definitely foreign films.
THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU is tight, fast, and twisty. All the things a good mystery/thriller should be.
And that’s why I want to talk about it. Because structurally, it’s interesting, and well done. This film also brings up nerdy storytelling debates, such as, “What the hell is a mystery/thriller, and how is it different than a mystery or Jack Reacher punching people in the face one more time?”
Mysteries, thrillers, and mystery/thrillers
Mysteries are easy to spot: there’s (1) a murder in the beginning, (2) a grizzled, alcoholic detective who investigates multiple suspects, starting with trip to the local nudie bar–this is apparently required by law, and (3) a series of sketchy suspects who are all plausibly the killer.
In the end, our detective sobers up enough to unmask the killer and either slaps on the handcuffs or poses a math problem.
Thrillers are also pretty easy to define.
A bad thing may happen. The central narrative question is, can it be stopped?
That question is the same whether the threat is a great white shark going nom-nom-nom, an alien on a starship with Sigourney Weaver in a T-shirt, or a terrorist who stole a nuclear weapon or three.
So what’s a mystery/thriller?
Pinning down mystery/thrillers
You can’t really pin them down, not before doing single-leg takedown and going for an armbar.
Okay, you can pin them down.
A pure mystery has ONE murder and makes you wonder who did it, why they did it, and whether they’ll get away with it. Which they won’t, so really the surprise is who, why, and how the hero catches them.
Mysteries merge into Thrillville, population zero because everybody dies in Act 3, when they do two things: (1) boost the public stakes by putting more people at risk, or underground, and (2) identify the villain far earlier in the story, when it pivots to a thriller.
You gotta have those two ingredients. More people in danger, or turning up dead, and that earlier pivot.
THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU does this perfectly.
We find out who the villain is earlier than a pure mystery, and learn why they’re doing it. The stake are higher than a pure mystery because it’s not one murder, but a series of killings. A mystery is about getting justice for that one death. Thrillers are about stopping carnage.
What’s great is this movie doesn’t cheat. There are tons of mystery/thrillers where the villain’s motivation is paper-thin, or non-existent. And there are plenty of mystery/thrillers that aren’t suprrising or shocking. You see them coming, and that puts the B in Boring.
I truly enjoyed THE PLAGUES OF BRESLAU, which does a great job of subverting the detective genre.
SPOILER: the villain wins, despite dying, and the hero wins, too, because the villain prods her into getting rough justice for the death that haunts her. (Fiance/husband/partner? Not sure — I watched this thing with the subtitles on).
It reminds me of SHIMMER LAKE, where the character you think is the hero is really the anti-hero/villain, doing the wrong things for the right reasons. And you understand why and agree with him, because he’s getting justice when the system failed.
If you haven’t watched it yet, finish up the Polish mystery/thriller goodness, then fire up SHIMMER LAKE, which is funny, shocking, and brilliant. It’s also a movie told in reverse, except it’s not a Cheaty McCheatface like MEMENTO.