Whatever Happens Next
Germany (2018) Dir. Julian Pörksen
Go on, admit it – you’ve just wanted to forget everything and just walk away from it all, with no destination in mind as long as it is as far away from the mundanity of everyday life. But, we are too sensible for that and take our obligations and responsibilities to our families to take such drastic action.
No such problem for Paul Zeise (Sebastian Rudolph) who does exactly as the above paragraph suggests. Just a few hundred yards into his daily bicycle ride to work, Paul suddenly stops, dumps his bike, discards his helmet then wanders off across a field to nowhere in particular. He stops at a DIY centre and lets himself into a random car, somehow convincing the driver to let him ride with him until he decides to stop.
Living off the goodwill of the people he meets and his ineffable ability not to seem like a dangerous sociopath, Paul is able to travel across the country and survive without any major hardships. Things change when he meets Nele (Lilith Stangenberg) in Poland, a young woman equally as capricious, or more so than Paul. Meanwhile, Paul’s wife Luise (Christine Hoppe) has hired a private detective Klinger (Peter René Lüdicke) to find her husband.
A road trip movie with a difference, this German/Polish production (imagine that with their history?) offers a different kind of cinematic wish fulfilment that is plausibly attainable though not necessarily encouraged. Whatever Happens Next is a maxim only some people are comfortable or able to live by, the usual hurdles being our inherent sense of responsibility and of course, financial security.
In his feature debut, writer-director Julian Pörksen presents a wry yet surprisingly gentle yarn about life passing us by because we are too busy playing its game by the rules and doing something about it. The spontaneity of Paul’s decision to leave his usual life behind is all the more beguiling as it is the first thing that happens in the film – no build up, no introduction to the characters or scene setting, just a man riding his bike who wants to get off.
This makes Paul an enigmatic blank slate since we have no idea what his personality should be, whether the tired, disillusioned chap on the bike or the audacious interloper is the real Paul. The timeline is a little obscure as Paul’s attire is different when he arrives at the DIY centre, his only possessions are a bag with hardly anything in it, and his demeanour is a lot more carefree than before, implying some time has passed since the opening scene.
People should be wary of him, but the burly guy at the DIY store seems more afraid of the scrawny stranger sitting in his car and makes no attempt remove Paul or threaten him, he simply jumps in the car and drives, giving him his cigarettes and a few Euros to be on his way. Yet, Paul himself isn’t threatening either, he simply smiles and answers all probing questions with an enigmatic “why not?” type reply.
Whatever it is, Paul keeps drifting from one scenario to the next and landing on his feet, whether it is gate crashing a funeral wake or simply showing up at a teen party. Paul asks very little in return, main himself at home yet also useful in cooking breakfast and such, which endears him to his impromptu hosts. When Klinger interviews them after the event, nobody has a bad word to say about Paul.
Everything seems so whimsical and charming, like Paul is some sort of nomadic faith healer, literally restoring people’s faith in each other though he is the one who benefits from their kindness the most. But because we don’t know enough about Paul or his reasons for abandoning his old life, we are waiting for something to snap within him or a sudden realising to hit that he has either made a mistake or found peace.
Yet, perhaps disappointingly, it never actually comes, the closest being Paul meeting Nele in Poland, which gives him a sense of direction in following her around. Their meeting is as random as any other, Nele inveigling a cup of coffee from Paul then driving him to the beach in a gorgeously shot scene, a visual highlight of the film.
Nele is supposed to be looking after a friend’s cat but her many detours have made her late and she panics it might be dead. It isn’t, but this gives Paul his first regular roof over his head and a partner in crime, as they hit the town and live the highlife at other’s expense. Nele is less disciplined and lacking compunction than Paul in their scams though never malicious; she is certainly more demanding and makes the rules in this offbeat relationship.
There is a whiff of French New Wave in Nele’s persona, the way she talks in riddles, has Paul in the palm of her hand yet keeps herself distant from him whilst playing the flirt – one can almost trace the inspiration of these scenes from Godard, Chabrol, et al. Unlike a lot of German cinema, there is no sense of austerity or pensive edge, the laconic tone fitting in more with Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki.
It is the lack of resolution and revelation that is the most frustrating part of this film, not knowing what Paul was escaping from – if he had issues he could have at least discussed them at some point but doesn’t. Nevertheless, Sebastian Rudolph makes for an unlikely but a strangely personable and convincing anti-hero, matched by the jaunty energy of Lilith Stangenberg’s Nele.
Maybe we are at fault for not heeding the open ambiguity of the title Whatever Happens Next, the entire premise being about taking life as it comes; naturally the ending would be non-committal but it is still unfulfilling. Prior to this is a curious, melancholic, dryly amusing ode to life’s unconventional doers and dreamers.