My Blind Date With Life (Mein Blind Date mit dem Leben)
Germany (2017) Dir. Marc Rothemund
The title of this German offering sounds whimsical and poetic enough to suggest maybe an arthouse film built on symbolism or something with a wry black comedy twist. My Blind Date With Life is in fact a semi-biographical film based on the book detailing one man’s brave but tumultuous experiences of fulfilling a lifelong dream against the odds.
15 year-old Saliya Kahawatte (Kostja Ullmann) has always wanted to work in the hotel industry and has recently completed a school holiday job at a local hotel. Unfortunately, he notices a problem with his eyesight, which is diagnosed with progressive retinal detachment leaving him with just 5% blurred vision. Despite this, Saliya passes his A Level exams a few years later then starts applying for apprenticeships with hotels.
Because Saliya disclosed his disability, this yields only rejections so he omits this vital detail from his application to the most prestigious five star hotel in Munich. Successfully hiding his impairment, Saliya’s passes the interview and sails through the training modules with help from fellow apprentice Max (Jacob Matschenz), but when Saliya falls for single mother delivery girl Laura (Anna Maria Mühe) keeping this secret begins to take its toll.
It sounds absurd and far-fetched but this is based on the real life experiences of Saliya Kahawatte, now an entrepreneur and advocate for the visually impaired. No doubt the first question on your mind is “how on earth did he get away with it?” which is completely valid. The answer is by sheer determination, able support from others and of course, a bit of luck.
It feels a bit disingenuous to be cynical about the veracity of this telling of the story and as empathetic as this film is, it does frequently err on the side of dramatic licence. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves – Saliya’s story is a remarkable one and Marc Rothemund, director of the powerful WWII drama Sophie Scholl, knows how to adapt a compelling story for the screen.
To let the audience see from Saliya perspective, the screen is turned into a messy blur with barely recognisable shapes pulsating beneath it, whilst the POV of Saliya’s face is shown during times of stress. This comes later in the film when his world begins to crumble, but before then, the biggest obstacle Saliya has is hiding his impairment from others.
At first he is successful, with the help from his sister Sheela (Nilam Farooq), helping him gauge where people’s eyes are and counting the steps in his journey and when the obstacles appear. Sailya’s increased sense of smell and hearing is a boon along with his impressive memory, so recalling facts, numbers, and procedures is not a problem. Max later assumes Sheela’s role, after some inadvertent mishaps with miscounting steps and coming up with cheeky shortcuts for the job.
Max himself is a bit of a wide boy, more interested in scoring with the chambermaids and partying than work, but as the son of a restaurateur, he knows his way around the bar and the table set up. Along the way, others in the hotel soon discover Saliya’s ailment and help him out – the sympathetic chef shows him how to work the meat slicer after he nearly cuts his thumb off.
You know that eventually not everyone is going to be so understanding and that man is head of the restaurant Herr Klienschmidt (Johann von Bülow), the de facto rod-up-his-arse Kiljoy and humourless walking rulebook. He doesn’t notice Saliya’s blindness but does notice his lack of speed and inability to spot if a glass is clean or not, and without max to bail him out, Saliya hits his first step in his downfall.
Because this is a dramatisation, all of Saliya’s problems come at once – from his run in with Klienschmidt to his Sinhalese father leaving the country, divorcing his mother and taking all the money. Worst of all is Saliya babysitting Laura’s young son Oskar at the park, a disaster waiting to happen that Rothemund deftly teases beforehand with a tense filled scene on a climbing frame. All of this sees Saliya self-medicate to get through it all and rock bottom is not far away.
Aside from telling Saliya’s story, there is a subtle subtext about being an immigrant in modern Germany, only lightly touched upon via Saliya’s mixed parentage. The totem for this is Afghan doctor Hamid (Kida Khodr Ramadan), unable to become a paramedic he has to work in the hotel kitchen until his papers are sorted. The juxtaposition is how an able bodied man is forced to jump through hoops to an important life saving job, yet a blind man can con his way into a hotel job!
Opting for the light approach and comedic tone tends to undermine the seriousness of Saliya’s plight yet it were played as a strict drama, Saliya would come across as a cynical chancer looking to cause mayhem over being sincere in chasing his dream. The comedy is not overplayed or exploited for dark laughs, and we find ourselves rooting for Saliya, and by association Max, who is more of a caricature due to his wisecracking persona.
Slightly resembling Gael García Bernal, Kostja Ullmann is a magnet for our support in his industrious determination and convincing as a blind man, yet equally horrifying when he goes off the rails. Jacob Matschenz is suitably cheeky as Max whilst Anna Maria Mühe is perhaps a little too pretty to be a blind man’s love interest and as a character feels more of a plot convention than a genuine concern.
Having said all of that, the whole point of this film is to raise awareness of the plight of those with vision impairment as well as sharing Saliya’s remarkable story. For all its box ticking genre traits, My Blind Date With Life is an enjoyable film with an inspirational feel good message driving it. Definitely worth seeing (pun intended)!