Credit: Sundance FIlm Festival
by Conor Truax Featured Film

Veni Vidi Vici — Daniel Hoesl & Julia Niemann [Sundance ’24 Review]

January 18, 2024

In the opening of his 1994 novel A Frolic of His Own, William Gaddis writes: “Justice? – You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” It seems glib to say the uneven scales of public law were born hand-in-hand with civilization, whether it be The Code of Hammurabi or Citizens United. It might sound even more trite to explicitly state that the one throughline — across culture, and time — is the bias of legal systems toward the rich, whether it be in its code or its enforcement. This is the reality that has rallied by Occupying Wall Street, or a small Swiss town called Davos. Generally, nothing changes. It feels as though, with perfect resignation, we’ve all come to accept these uneven scales as our social equilibrium.

However, Daniel Hoesl and Julia Niemann have not. The Sundance-selected Veni Vidi Vici marks the pair’s sophomore collaboration (following the 2020 documentary Davos), and their first venture into fictionalized storytelling. But as the pair make clear, beyond any room for reasonable doubt, this is a true story about how things really are; a call to the sleepwalking everyman to free himself from his chains.

Veni Vidi Vici follows the family of a billionaire named Amos Maynard (Laurence Rupp), his wife Viktoria (Ursina Lardi), two adopted children, Coco (Tamaki Uchida) and Bella (Kyra Kraus), and his biological daughter, Paula (Olivia Goschler). Through Paula’s narration, we stalk Amos as he tries to grow his family, acquire a company, and break ground on Ampère, a battery factory that will become the biggest of its kind in Europe. But the detail that drives the film is that what Amos hunts isn’t animals. Something like a cross between The Most Dangerous Game and American Psycho, Amos is revealed in the film’s first scene as a spree killer who, using his extensive collection of “hundreds of rifles,” regularly kills strangers at random with sniper rifles.

More bewildering than his cold-blooded murders, which feel sensical considering his blithe, readymade “capitalist psychopath” archetype — an ostensible composite of technologists turned evangelists, like Elon Musk and Peter Thiel — is the fact that it seems like virtually everyone knows that he’s committing the killings. The police, the government ministers he corrupts, his family; his offenses are so transparent that it begs the question why he makes any effort at all to conceal them. After each murder, he exchanges his Porsche for a sprinter van driven by his butler, Alfred (Markus Schleinzer) — the implication of Amos as a twisted Bruce Wayne figure is one of the few funny parts of the film. In his garage, we’re granted the privilege of a slow sweep of at least fifteen cars of the same make and model: all pure white, like snow.

The first of two characters in the film who express any interest in taking Amos down is Alois Sepperer (Haymon Maria Buttinger), a gamekeeper on the hunting grounds where Amos kills two hikers. Confusingly, Alois witnesses these murders, gun in hand, and watches Amos walk away smiling. Later in the film, Paula points a loaded gun at Alois as a “joke.” But in a trite interlude, we see Alois retreat to a barn full of cattle, where he shoots himself in the head. The other character who attempts to implicate Amos is Volter (Dominik Warta), a mentally unstable journalist desperate to inform the public about Amos’ murderous bent before he can commit another killing. After his ex-girlfriend, a publisher at a major paper, rejects his investigative coverage, Volter goes directly to Amos. To his shock, Amos openly admits to Volter that he is the killer, and challenges him, with a hint of desperation, to prove it to the public. The moment is so absurd that it’s estranging. Like the confession met with incredulous laughter at the end of American Psycho, Amos subverts typical instances of situational irony in crime novels and films. Yet unlike in American Pyscho, Amos’ admission comes midway through the film. There is no humor or misdirection in what he says; in turn, there is no real sense of tension. It’s all a game to him, and none of us are having fun.

In another perplexing twist, Paula kills Alfred, and Volter, having broken down after being exposed to the level of corruption going up all the way to the Minister of Justice, succumbs to Amos and becomes his new butler, taking the adopted name Alfred. What’s so frustrating about Volter’s character (besides his meek trudging from scene to scene), is the lack of any real effort he makes in pursuit of the truth, how quickly he folds. Veni Vidi Vici, however, is not a cynical film; it’s a sanctimonious one, so self-satisfied with its clear view of the world that it resigns from challenging it.

The development is an exemplary instance of the film’s lack of originality; it’s too half-hearted to feel earnest, and too earnest to feel satirical. Veni Vidi Vici has the perfect framework to be a satire of “stunning originality,” as some writers like to say, but it doesn’t have the wit to lean into the course it sets for itself. The plot is absurd, but the humor isn’t; the characters are flat, and so are their jokes. Everything is on the nose, if not obvious, and perhaps this gave the complacency to do little by way of developing their story. Viewers can accept the overt political messaging of films like Triangle of Sadness because its didacticism is blunted by its humor. Such is not the case in Veni Vidi Vici, which ends with what amounts to a call to action; a taunt from the now-murderous Paula, only 13 years old. The unfortunate truth is that it’s difficult to change attitudes of the viewer if the means you use to subvert those attitudes also uses them to conform to the viewer’s expectations.

From its outset, all of Veni Vidi Vici‘s tension is deflated by the obvious fact that Amos will win. He “always wins,” we’re told. Why finish the film, then? Through its course, the only clear point the film demonstrates is that it won’t matter whether we challenge these people or not. (It’s no small irony that the film’s sale is being handled by a company that is owned by a celebrity billionaire, Mark Cuban.) In film, as in life, there is always another way. Unfortunately, Veni Vidi Vici shows us no ambition, path, or hope of getting there.