A little girl begs for food, speaking into an intercom system from a dark cellar as tears stream down her cheeks. She is so hungry she will eat whatever he brings, she says. A man upstairs bawls down the phone.
“OBEY! OBEY! OBEY!”
The dreadful tale of Natascha Kampusch, an Austrian girl who was kidnapped at the age of 10 and starved, beaten and locked away in a cellar for eight years, is the subject of a film that opens in German cinemas today. “3096 Days” is based on her book, and portrays her ordeal with grim show-don’t-tell realism.
Shot in English by a German team who worked closely with Kampusch, the movie focuses on the gruesomely fascinating relationship between the victim -- played by Amelia Pidgeon as a 10-year-old and Antonia Campbell-Hughes as a teenager -- and her deluded captor-tormenter.
Wolfgang Priklopil (Thure Lindhardt) was an out-of-work telecommunications engineer who threw himself under a train after her escape. He spent months preparing her windowless, 2-meter (6.5 feet) by 3-meter prison in his cellar before he grabbed her on her way to school one day and bundled her into his white van.
The film is claustrophobic and intense, with much of the action taking place in the dark, cramped cell. Priklopil is by turns violent and conciliatory, offering presents and even a cake for Kampusch’s 18th birthday.
She uses his good moments to wheedle extra freedoms and treats out of him -- a clock, a shower in the house upstairs, a night-time walk around the garden.
Thankfully the movie doesn’t speculate on Priklopil’s disturbed psyche, merely showing his abuse rather than seeking to explain it.
He exhorts Natascha to forget about her previous life and become the woman he “made” for himself. She at times appears compliant, yet chronicles his beatings blow by blow on rolls of toilet paper.
Pidgeon as the 10-year-old Kampusch presents an endearing, strong-willed little girl with a penchant for chocolate biscuits. The older Natascha portrayed by Campbell-Hughes appears more fragile. She is perilously thin -- in 2004, deprived of food, Kampusch’s weight was 38 kilos (84 pounds).
Anyone who saw the real Kampusch giving her poised interview on Austrian television shortly after her escape may find Pidgeon’s portrayal closer to the original. Yet Campbell-Hughes’s performance also betrays an understanding that, beyond his obvious domination, there’s a deeper tier where she holds sway.
“It was clear that only one of us would survive, and in the end it was me, not him,” Kampusch is quoted as saying.
Among the most moving scenes are those where she recreates elements of a normal life in her tiny cell. The young Natascha plays school, acting both the part of the stern teacher and the pupil. As a teenager, she dances alone to rock music. It is her will to live and her ability to see the reality of her situation -- despite her isolation -- that makes Kampusch’s terrible story at least partly uplifting.
As Kampusch grew up, Priklopil began bringing her to his bed. She doesn’t write about the sex abuse in her book. Yet she has sanctioned the movie and is actively promoting it.
The film shows him attaching their wrists together with plastic locking strips to prevent her escape. Resistance is futile. She is even shown deriving pleasure from the sex in one brief scene, to be filled with self-hatred afterwards.
It is the only time we see her suicidal. She sets fire to her cell with an electric hob and toilet paper, extinguishing it before she chokes to death.
Priklopil grows less careful. In one scene, Natascha is furious with herself for not exploiting a trip to a hardware store to escape. In another, she seeks help in the restrooms of a ski resort, yet the woman she asks understands no German.
Kampusch escaped when she was vacuuming Priklopil’s van. He took a call on the phone; the gate was open; she left the vacuum running and scarpered. Rating: ***
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Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Warwick Thompson on London theater, Jason Harper on cars and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.