Germany (2013) Dir. Christian Schwochow
The events of 1989 seems such a long time ago when Germany was no longer a country divided in two, making this 1970’s set film, based on the novel Lagerfeuer by Julia Franck, seem prematurely archaic despite being fairly recent historically.
In East Germany, single mother Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her young son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) immigrate to West Germany three years after the death of Nelly’s Russian boyfriend. However the grass isn’t much greener on the other side as Nelly and Alexej find it difficult to settle in to their new home of a refugee centre, while the authorities continue to plague Nelly under the belief that her late boyfriend was a spy.
Sitting comfortably as a less politically trenchant cousin of the superb Stasi drama The Lives Of Others, Christian Schwochow’s taut drama West recreates a similarly austere period in recent German history in which simple freedoms are at a premium in one half of the country while the other is still playing things cautiously. Unfortunately for our characters, any sense of positive change in switching sides is slow to reveal itself.
While Nelly has the qualifications to get a good job she is denied until she gets citizenship which requires her to get stamps on her application form, rewarded for her answers in a series of interviews with the East German authorities. One of these is with the Allied Security Services, made up of American Intelligence agents whose relentlessly probing of Nelly serves to get her back up rather than offer information.
Nelly perseveres for Alexej’s sake and eventually earns her citizenship as well as the amorous attention of ASS agent John Bird (Jacky Ido) who, off the record, reveals to Nelly that her late ex Wassilij might still be alive and living anonymously in the West having double-crossed the Stasi. This triggers Nelly’s paranoia and threatens to ruin everything for her and Alexej.
The tonal shift this revelation brings is subtly done for such a drastic development, piercing like a stake through the heart of the goodwill that preceded it. It may be based purely on educated conjecture but it is enough for Nelly to look over her shoulder every few seconds and lose sleep on a nightly basis for what ostensibly appears to be nothing but is very real to her.
Schwochow channels his inner Hitchcock in making the mundane and innocuous seem like a creeping terror, avoiding clichés like musical stings and overactive camerawork to heighten the tension and sense of dread. Instead he relies on the acting of his cast and simple, lightly jaunty shots in sparse locations the result being some effectively pregnant chilling moments.
Because of her increasing distrust Nelly is failing to recognise the damage she is doing to the people around her which is not limited to son Alexei. Having lost his only playmate of his age, Alexei is being bullied by the kids at school, finding an ally in the form of refugee resident Hans (Alexander Scheer), another defector from the East who is afraid to leave the complex. Hans befriends Nelly first and they seem to hit it off but soon she considers him an enemy too, straining her relationship with the doting Alexej further.
The most striking thing we take away from this film is the way the West isn’t depicted as the glorious haven of freedom as we expect it to be, instead proving to have its own method of control and oppression, albeit under a less politically motivated and despotic regime. The Stasi may not be a factor in the West but the hoops Nelly and other defectors are forced to jump through is akin to the austere control they left behind.
In one telling scene when Nelly is asked why she left East Germany she replied “Because of questions like that”. There is a moment of irony when Nelly is assessed for her citizenship and she states that she has forgotten what freedom is, and one of the panel says it is civil liberties, choice and opportunity – the very things Nelly was forced under strict conditions to prove she was worthy of.
While the characters are well developed and their relationships neatly formed there is a lack of resolution to their individual issues, along with the open and ambiguous ending, which stands out as a notable drawback to what was shaping up to being a great film. It didn’t need much, just one tiny little sign for us to complete the puzzle in our minds, but Schwochow and his scriptwriter mother Heide decide to evoke Abbas Kiarostami and just end the film on an obtuse note because they felt like it.
Holding the whole film together is the superb performance from leading lady Jördis Triebel, a captivating actress with a string screen presence. Triebel is tasked with emoting everything Nelly endures and does so with an almost schizophrenic like ease – from her initial nerves at entering West Germany to her steely determination to earn her place, to her tender relationship with Alexej and the final nerve shredding descent into paranoia.
Keeping up with Triebel are Alexander Scheer as Hans, the bridge between Nelly’s past and future, portraying this gangly and quiet man as a harmless enigma while young Tristan Göbel more than holds his own as Alexej, delivering a mature and rounded performance while retaining all of the innocence of a child his age.
West may sit in the shadow of mighty predecessors like The Lives Of Others but that doesn’t make it any less a worthy or evocative film. It works well by being on a smaller scale with its simple but clever and insightful storytelling, while boasting strong and believable performances as a strong selling point.
An engaging, quietly unnerving and enlightening look at life on the other side of the Berlin Wall for those of us on the other side of the Teutonic borders.