Starring: Gerhard Liebmann, Luka Dimic, Julia Koschitz
Director: David Wagner
Sergeant Major Eismayer (Liebmann) is a notoriously strict training officer in the Austrian military. Known for pushing recruits to their physical limits, he is detested and feared in equal measure having drilled thousands of young soldiers; making some but breaking others. However, he’s taken off-guard by Falak (Dimic), an openly gay recruit who is completely unfazed when his comrades try to use his sexuality as a weapon against him. Eismayer is secretly gay too - with a wife (Koschitz) and son - but he doesn’t know how to respond to this refreshingly strong and authentic young man.
As films about military training go, this is definitely one of the more interesting. We are positioned from the perspective of Falak from the opening, only gradually exposed to his superior little by little, drip-feeding the harsh reality of a man that clearly loves to humiliate and oppress. Eismayer is a brilliant character, full of fascinating contradictions. He has no patience with his men, yet he has all the patience in the world for his son; he has kept his sexuality a tight-lipped secret, but once he decides to share his truth, he is direct and unfaltering.
Eismayer’s character arc is nothing short of exquisite, both in its writing and its performance. He is utterly detestable at the film’s start, but by the end he is relatable, accessible and eminently lovable. It’s not that the character’s essence changes, it’s that this staunch disciplinarian is just as efficient at self-improvement as he is at scaring soldiers into obeisance. It’s a real achievement that this character – based on a real-life figure – loses none of his stature, power or essence in his journey into falling in love with a man. And while some might find the final scenes difficult to swallow, there’s something so typically Eismayer in this exactingly to-the-point climax.
As the narrative shifts from Falak to the titular sergeant, this becomes a complex character portrait deep within the mechanism of military training. There is toxic masculinity plastered across the film, but it’s fascinating to see the soft underbelly of an iron behemoth as he reconciles his identity with his masculinity, especially as he clunkily attempts to seduce his handsome recruit. The story might be simple but the characters are expansive, with both of its leads delivering the kind of knock-out performances that Hollywood can only wish for sometimes.
UK Release: 20th November 2023 on VOD and DVD, released by Peccadillo Pictures