The title refers to a family estate, an incredible mansion located in an unlikely place at a very fateful time. Poll was actually the paternal home of Kraus’ great aunt, the poetess Oda Schaefer. As recreated from scratch for the film, it resembles a fairytale neoclassical manor standing on stilts, between a tract of disputed land and the Baltic Sea, somewhere in remote rural Estonia in the grey zone between what used to be the German Reich and the Soviet empire.
It’s 1914, and Oda – who’s just as old as the century – is sent to live with her German dad, an outcast scientist versed in Gray’s Anatomy, more precisely the dissection of the human body, with a special predilection for two-headed foetuses and anarchists’ brains (usually belonging to freshly killed Estonian revolutionaries, and graciously delivered to our scientist by troops of the tsar, whose garrison is stationed a few metres from the house).
Madness is about to set a whole continent on fire and madness has already taken over in Poll: the duty-bound Russian officers living side by side with Oda’s family of eccentric German aristocrats: Ebbo, the mad scientist who “opens countless skulls but knows nothing about what makes a human being”; his beautiful neglected wife who finds solace in melomania and the arms of the estate keeper; and their son and daughter.
Everyone might merrily get in tune during impromptu home-concerts or multilingual chatter over endless Chekovian meals – but no one can be fooled: the merriness is only a façade about to crumble into rubble. For Oda, the Potemkin front collapses the day she’s (literally) swept off her feet by a dashing wounded anarchist, whom she immediately decides to hide and nurse. The decision might be her salvation and her only way out of the confined insanity, but it’s also set to coincide with and precipitate the final fall of Poll and an entire era.
With its pre-WWI doomsday atmosphere, compelling characters (special kudos to the young Paula Beer and the very fine Jeanette Hain) and an amazing set, Poll lingers with you long after you see it. One might even forget that Kraus overdoes it: the graphic goriness of Ebbo’s morbid experiments sometimes verge on the grotesque, and young Oda’s over-romanticized awakening to love with a conveniently pretty-faced, cute-smiled anarchist comes as counterproductively cheesy. The ending is messy and denouement hard to come about. But all in all Poll is an engrossing costume epic and an ambitious film – as too few European directors (Check out our interview with Kraus) venture to make these days.
POLL | Directed by Chris Claus (Germany 2010) with Paula Beer and Edgar Seige. Opens February 3