“12 Paces Without A Head” tells the purportedly true tale of German pirates Klaus Stortebeker (Ronald Zehrfeld) and Godeke Michels (Matthias Schweighofer). The film imagines the story of these folk heroes as a buddy-action-comedy, one that includes modern touches, like contemporary diction, and twentieth-century pop and punk music. The first scene is a beheading set to a Clash song, so right away you know where you stand. That sounds like it could be annoying, but it actually fits rollicking nature of the movie. It may be a modern revision of a popular historical myth, but the laughs and swashbuckling action of “12 Paces” is enough to make it every bit as fun as any of the movies in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.
Stortebeker and Michels are foul-mouthed, toe-sucking, small-time high seas bandits. They’ve had some mild success, predicated on Klaus’s extraordinary nautical prowess, but their time and options are running out as the Hanseatic League, a corrupt, heavily bureaucratic trade federation increases in power and tightens down the clamps on activities like piracy. Mostly the two bros rob ships when they can, and spend the rest of their time drinking and chasing ladies. Their life combines brutal shipboard hand-to-hand combat with an easy, almost frat-boy type of chilled out sensibility. They love the freedom of the sea, just want to have a good time, and use pirating as a means to an end.
Their fortunes take a turn for the worse when their motley crew gets their asses handed to them in battle, and their ship sinks. Struggling to start over from scratch, they procure a beaten down vessel that barely floats, and comes with a dead body on board, an ominous omen. Add to that the fact that Klaus has lost his nerve, and becomes afraid of the sea and the wind, and the outlook for the friends is bleak. The crew mutinies and abandons Stortebeker and Michels in mid-ocean, and there is a definite time of existential-pirate-crisis, complete with a few suicide attempts. Fortunately they stumble upon a hidden piece of combat technology, a new weapon of mass destruction from the Far East—a big ass cannon—something none of their contemporaries have. Using their newfound advantage, Klaus gets his groove back, and they go on a tear of epic proportions, driving the Hanseatic League to the brink of bankruptcy and collapse. Of course they can’t have this, so they call in the big guns, and shit gets real.
Bros through thick and thin, Stortebeker and Michels have a good dynamic. Klaus is the romantic dreamer who longs for a simple life on a farm, and is easily emotionally wounded; while Godeke is a hothead who takes things too personally, never backs down from a fight, no matter what the consequences, and has tendency to get them into trouble, including pitting a single ship against a cruel, monolithic empire. The two sail on towards their ultimate doom with a cocky bravado and a gallows humor. Their relationship and back and forth is really what carries “12 Paces”, providing most of the emotional weight and dramatic tension. There are a few missteps, but nothing major, and certainly nothing that can’t quickly be forgiven with a dashing smile and a cavalier wave of a hand.
At it’s heart, “12 Paces Without A Head”, is about the quest for freedom, including all of the inherent risks, consequences, benefits, and dangers of such a search. Freedom, true freedom, has a high cost, and you have to be willing to accept the possibility of complete, absolute, tragic failure if you’re going to reach for that goal. The brutal, draining climactic scene, set to a Johnny Cash song, perfectly illustrates the detriments and sacrifice intrinsic in the quest to live a free live. In most cases it isn’t going to be entirely pretty. I hope “12 Paces” winds up with a distributor from SIFF, because I think it is a movie that a lot of people will really enjoy once they get the chance to see it.