The Good Neighbour (Unter Nachbarn)
Germany (2011) Dir. Stephan Rick
As the theme tune for the legendary Aussie soap has been telling us for the past thirty plus years “Everybody needs good neighbours”. But sometimes neighbours can overstep the boundaries a little and when that happens, the end result isn’t always going to be pleasant.
Journalist David Ahrens (Maxim Mehmet) moves into a plush house belonging to a friend of his father’s, having moved to start a new job with the local newspaper. Living across the way is male nurse Robert Graetz (Charly Hübner), an amiable chap if a little on the shy and awkward side. Having bonded over the building of David’s furniture, he rewards Robert with a night out at a nearby club.
On the drive home, a distracted David accidentally knocks down and kills a cyclist – Janine (Katharina Heyer), the woman he exchanged phone numbers with at the club. In a panic, Robert urges David to drive away. The next day David is assigned to cover the accident by his editor, meeting Janine’s sister Vanessa (Petra Schmidt-Schaller) at the police conference. As the pair start to get closer, Robert becomes jealous.
This might not have any relevance or significance but prior to this film debut, writer-director Stephan Rick was celebrated for an award winning children’s TV series, making this tense and gnarly thriller quite a departure. Possibly the only connection is the childlike sense of attachment and possession that loner Robert displays towards David, deciding very quickly that they are friends through David’s simple neighbourly gestures.
Perhaps the simplicity and familiarity of the tropes, along with the rather predictable journey towards a grim finale, might suggest a paucity of original ideas, but in the right hands, even recycled ingredients can still produce a tasty dish – it is what you do with them that counts, and Rick has created a palpably creepy and taut chiller with this simple premise.
Robert gives off a slight Norman Bates vibe, in that his house was bequeathed to him by his late mother and he is well domesticated for a single man. He enjoys fishing, a decidedly solitary pastime, and cherishes small military models his grandfather gave him. It is therefore with some irony that a male nurse would leave a dead woman at roadside rather than fulfil his professional duty and report it.
The motivation for this is to secure the continued freedom of his new best friend, who is cut up about the whole thing, and more to the point, wracked with guilt about driving away. While David has to put on a brave face in front of his colleagues, and now a grieving Vanessa, Robert is fixing things behind his back to deflect any police attention away from him.
But, in true fashion, as Vanessa begins to rely on David for support, he finds it harder to confess his sin to her while Robert is wondering why his “best friend” is lying about having to work in order to cancel a dinner date. The seemingly good-natured Robert gradually reveals his dark side and with Vanessa complicating matters but falling for the killer of her sister, something has to give.
Despite being made in Germany there is a definite Nordic Noir feel about this film, found in the washed out colour palette, the largely absent musical soundtrack, reliance on darkness to create a mood and the ominous feeling of impending unpleasantness in every frame. Rick plays his cards close to his chest by playing on this unease and keeping the shocks to a minimum, manipulating our sense of expectation to the fullest.
Very much a character driven piece, it is down to the dualism of Robert’s protean demeanour, passive and congenial one minute and gleefully malevolent the next, yet all delivered from behind such an unassuming façade. There is a solipsistic undercurrent to Robert’s committed belief that there is a rock solid friendship between him and David, which the latter is both unaware of and unwilling to subscribe to.
With the backgrounds of neither men explored here, it is hard to divine exactly how we should feel about them, but Rick again deliberately withholds this from the audience, forcing us to judge them by their actions from this point forward. This way, whenever David loses his cool towards Robert in the early going, we are in this instance compelled to feel sorry for him, even if we have our concerns about him.
Conversely, David could have obliged his conscience and given himself into the police but didn’t, not to mention starting a relationship with the sister of the woman he killed. Is there any hope for a man who could hide such vital information about himself for the sake of a quick fumble? Initially there is but when Vanessa declares her love for him, David’s flawed ego wins out.
If this awkward and ill-advised love affair appears like a contrivance, it is not indicative of the depth of the plotting which Rick and co-writer Silja Clemens commit themselves to. The script carefully lays clues for the audience to play detective, the slightest detail becoming a crucial point of contention in exposing the truth, and even as we approach the climax, it appears that behind the gauche exterior of Robert lies a Machiavellian mind running like clockwork.
Along with the dense plotting, the characters are vital components of making this such a quietly unnerving experience. Both David and Robert possess an air of reality about them which comes through in the performances of Maxim Mehmet and Charly Hübner respectively. While both have different roles to play, it is Hübner who is the most engaging of the two but the chemistry between the pair is the film’s centrifugal force.
The Good Neighbour is undeniably a by-the-number psychological thriller, but it does it so well that we are too immersed in the eerie atmosphere and twisted mind space to worry about the flirting with conventions.
Definitely a film worthy of wider attention.