2018 Film Essays

Berlinale 2018: Perspektive Deutsches Kino – No Safe Space

The Perspektive Deutsches Kino is Berlinale’s platform for young directors, often just out of Germany’s strong film academies. This year, it is also a noticeable showcase for young protagonists struggling with home, family, identity and belonging. The four featured directors deliver confident debuts, working successfully with child actors as young as eight years old. “Whatever happens next,” as the Perspektive motto goes this year, might be stronger, youth-centric German cinema, vulnerable yet confidently staking its claim.

Antje Beine’s film Kein sicherer Ort (No Safe Space, co-produced by the Film Academy Munich) is the most straight-forward story set in an everyday, middle-class environment. It is exactly this apparent normalcy and familiarity that renders the film so gut-wrenchingly bleak. The dysfunctional mother-father-daughter dynamic of grinding disappointment, frustration, self-involvement and first-world meekness is observed through the eyes of 10-year-old Marie (Lucia Stickel), a child trying to be her parents’ parent in order to create some sort of home life for herself.

While living with an incompetent, over-sharing, drugged up mother and a weak, resigned father, the child is abused by both parents, and the explicit title isn’t necessary to get the point across, as there’s not even a safe space in the bathroom. The film could perhaps have been told (visually and narratively) even more rigorously from the child’s perspective, but it excels at leaving an uncomfortable residue of emotional abuse. No Safe Space reminds me of the unforgiving, middle-class family hell that Phillip Gröning highlights in his films, most recently in The Policeman’s Wife.

To my surprise, the end credits for Storkow Kalifornia reveal Groening as director Kolja Malik’s instructor at Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, a connection I stylistically would not have made at first. In a way, the film picks up Marie’s story 20 years later and sets it in a different milieu. Thirty-year-old drifter Sunny (Daniel Roth) is torn between his hustling mother and his new love, as their sexual experimentation promises self-realization and freedom. Sunny is the oldest of the young characters in this program, but the most child-like and most damaged by his guilt-tripping, self-involved and dependent mother. Fittingly, Storkow Kalifornia is shot as a delirious genre film, a jumbled fever dream oscillating between staying and going. With their song “Blue Splinter,” Berlin indie duo Me and My Drummer deliver the soundtrack not only for Storkow Kalifornia but for the Perspektive cluster of films: “Wrap me up in gloom … there it is, my final chance.”

Kineski zid (Great Wall of China, directed by Berlin’s dffb film academy student Aleksandra Odić, is a poetic exploration of a Bosnian family as experienced through the eyes of eight-year-old Maja (Elena Matic). They all meet one summer day, and Maja is the only family member who understands that her favourite aunt Ljilja (Tina Keserovic) is about to secretly run off to Germany.

In this film, the bubbly, adventurous and intuitively wise child is the lens onto the adult world of leisurely banter, intergenerational war trauma, neighbourly rivalry and dreams of a better life elsewhere. Despite the upbeat music and sunshine, home is literally not safe — the kids are not allowed to run into a nearby ruin for fear of land mines. But Maja is cushioned by the fabric of the family, with a fun and loving dad, a caring mother and several young aunts more or less engaging with her. As so often in cultures where the group dynamic is paramount, individual creativity and self-expression are met with non-understanding or resistance. Only Maya gets the rebellious, artsy teen Ljilja. The strongest scene is a dream sequence of the girls bouncing together joyfully, as if on a trampoline. Another Minecraft-like fairy tale scene is stylistically more alien.

Again, questions of what makes a home worth staying or leaving come up. Kineski zid reminds of Sonja Koerner’s recent family drama The Garden, with lush and alluring camera work by Katharina Diessner and beautiful original music by Micha Kaplan. Pensive but positive, the film weighs the risks of dreams versus the constraints of reality.

Leaving my favourite for last, Rå — by Film University Babelsberg student Sophia Bösch — is a story about initiation. Sixteen-year-old Linn (Sofia Aspholm) wants to be accepted into her father’s hunting group at all costs, and she realises, little by little, that she will never truly belong. It’s a meditation on growing up and discovering how difficult it is for a woman to find her place in a community of men with age-old hierarchies and unspoken rites.

Featuring stylized close-ups of hunters and dogs, begins pleasantly enough with an affable father and his teen daughter driving through the stark Swedish landscape, playfully battling in the car over the generational choice of music. Once outside of this confined space and out in the wild, the characters inhabit separate worlds. Linn shoots an elk with one solid shot and has her two minutes of joy and camaraderie before the situation flips. While it is never expressed as such, the film’s dark woods exploration cleverly implies how crucial gender is when interpreting people’s actions and worth in group settings. I love how Boesch resolutely stays with Linn’s unbowed doggedness, as the character stakes her claim and right within the hunting group while rejecting the judgment passed by the men.

Two years ago, I was impressed by how Perspektive filmmaker Aline Fischer immersed herself into Meteor Street’s all-male world. This year, the gender lines seem more clearly drawn in the cluster of four films running only two hours in total — three by female filmmakers on female protagonists, one by a male director — but at least two of the films question or break the gender divide.

Under the direction of the gutsy Linda Söffker, the Perspektive Deutsches Kino continues to tell some of the most interesting stories at Berlinale. The four featured films make good use of their limited framework, telling strong, youth-centric stories from different angles with ambiguous endings.

Jutta Brendemuhl (@JuttaBrendemuhl) is an arts writer and programmer (among others) for the Goethe-Institut and the European Union Film Festival Toronto. Jutta has worked with Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders, Robert Rauschenberg, Pina Bausch and other luminaries. When she isn’t sitting in an arthouse cinema in Berlin or Toronto, she might be watching old Die Hard DVDs in her living room. Her writing has appeared in POV, ScreenPrism, DIE ZEIT, German Film @ Canada blog and she’s indexed on IMDB. Jutta holds a master’s degree in English Literature and is a fellow of the Toronto Cultural Leaders Lab.