Heart of Darkness Meets Hansel and Gretel: Will Von Tagen's 'After Walpurgisnacht' 

Boise filmmaker tracks rogue folklorists through Germany

Will Von Tagen taps into a rich vein of German folklore with After Walpurgisnacht.

Courtesy Will Von Tagen

Will Von Tagen taps into a rich vein of German folklore with After Walpurgisnacht.

The title of Boise filmmaker Will Von Tagen's second feature-length film, After Walpurgisnacht, presents a challenge to moviegoers right off the bat. Pronounced "Val-PURG-iss-nakt," it's kind of a mouthful, even for German language students sweating out their exams.

"It's funny because people struggle with the title already," Von Tagen said, noting audiences wrestled with the title of his first film, Almosting It, which is set for digital release in May. "I like to educate people a little bit about how deeply it runs in German literature. I'm not just making this word up."

Walpurgisnacht, which draws its name from an 8th century Catholic feast day whose April 30 eve doubles in folk tradition as a witches' sabbath night, is set for an October premiere in Boise. Taking its cue from the witchy connotation, the film is a psychological thriller about an oral historian called to the Harz Mountains near the former border of East and West Germany to investigate a rogue folklorist who is using the region's history and identity to consolidate control over the locals. Think Heart of Darkness meets "Hansel and Gretel."

"You told [folk tales and legends] to children to scare the daylights out of them," Von Tagen said. "It's ... examining what was being done in the [German Democratic Republic] to these towns and what would happen if someone manipulated what people believed in in this region to try and take some sort of control."

From the end of May to mid-June, he'll be producing and shooting in and around remote Harz-area German villages that have been decaying since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sets include abandoned health resorts, long-neglected villages, stony caves in the woods and Buzludzha—the site of a majestically creepy, flying saucer-like Soviet monument in Bulgaria.

Von Tagen will populate these locations with a mix of locals and American actors who have experience with German. Almosting It veteran Jay Koeppl will play the lead opposite Boise actor Drake Shannon, as the film's antagonist. German actress Luisa Wietzorek will play the female lead. For his previous film, Von Tagen cast Lee Majors in a supporting role, but said he won't cast a big-name actor in Walpurgisnacht.

"I decided rather than investing a lot of money to fill a role like that, we're going to skip over that and put the money back into the film," he said. "A lot of indie films feel the need to put [in] a Michael Madsen or someone the audience will recognize, but honestly, if it's not in the right type of role or for the right reasons, it's a distraction."

In the background of the film is the looming cultural presence of Walpurgisnacht itself—a Burning Man for Satanists, pagans and hippies that features heavily in German film, music and literature. Not least of these is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's closet drama Faust, in which the titular character witnesses the bacchanalia on the summit of the Harz Mountains' highest peak, Brocken. The film will also play off so-called "Ostalgie," or nostalgia among former residents of the GDR for East Germany's socialist aesthetic, typified by the former republic's quirky crosswalk signals and Trabant automobiles with their loud, two-stroke engines.

"What I found interesting was that there was this age gap. Everyone who was 30 years or younger during the reunification has this Ostalgie. Everyone above that, they despise that. Finding where the disconnect was, that perspective shift is a thing," Von Tagen said.

Among other influences are George Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht Ballet and Felix Mendelssohn's choral oratorio, Die erste Walpurgisnacht. Von Tagen said he had originally hoped to score the movie with Robert Franz, Jim Cockey and Boise Philharmonic, but Franz's upcoming departure from Boise Phil and other factors put that project on hold. Now, the movie's scoring is "sort of a budget-contingent thing now."

"I still don't know what or who will do the scoring, but it will be derived [and] recomposed from the traditional music of the region," Von Tagen said.

He described Walpurgisnacht's budget as "micro," with funds coming from local sources, similar to Almosting It. Distribution will be by Gravitas Ventures. After the local success of his first film, Von Tagen said he's working with the Boise Virtual Reality Project during the shoot to create 3-D project updates for fans. A rollout for the VR updates will take place First Thursday, April 7, at Boise Rock School.

"How cool would it be if we were shooting that every single day and giving people back home a chance to be on set with us?" He said.

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