Germany (2002) Dir. Ulrich Köhler
It’s hard being stuck in a life where you feel you have no direction and nothing seems to provide any answers. Then you find out others seem to have the life you want, what do you do – find the same for yourself or try to take theirs instead?
Paul (Lennie Burmeister), a 19-year old soldier in the German army, decides to go AWOL when the military truck he is in stops at a motorway restaurant and heads off to this family’s summer home to find his older brother Max (David Striesow) is already there. Max is not alone, as his Danish girlfriend Lene (Trine Dyrholm), an aspiring actress, is staying with him ahead of an upcoming film shoot in Munich.
Finding himself attracted to Lene, Paul tries to make moves on her which she rejects, though she is not above teasing Paul either. Max is unaware of this but is also angry with Paul for continually lying about returning to the army, instead finding every opportunity to hang about the home and hoping something will happen with Lene.
Minimalist cinema is one thing, having little direction is another which is the fundamental problem with the debut feature from Ulrich Köhler. Finding something interesting to do is not just a fruitless search for the lead character in Bungalow; Köhler has made this a mission for the audience too, as we are forced to live through Paul’s aimless ennui. While this may be film heaven for some, the rest of us like to have something to hook us.
Admittedly, the film isn’t that dull and plotless but by spending more time meandering than telling the story and fleshing the characters out, it starts to feel less of a worthwhile commitment. It’s rare for a film only 85-minutes long to drag but this tends to do that when it has little else to show than Paul skateboarding with no destination in mind, or Max and Lene frolicking in the pool.
On second thought, seeing Lene naked might make it these scenes more bearable for some but that is beside the point, not all depictions of quotidian life on film can be that fascinating for audiences. Perhaps the biggest issue is how Paul remains a closed book throughout the film, his reason for deserting the army never disclosed or discussed, nor is there is any sign of him knowing what he wants to do for a post-service career.
When we first see Paul, he is just a face among a number of fresh faced cadets stuffed in the back of a military track, bedecked in the standard green camouflage issue. At the motorway stop, instead of boarding the truck, Paul hides in a fast food restaurant then hitches a ride with a stranger, before switching to a train. With no luggage evident, we assume Paul has no money either, yet he manages to afford a ticket, booze, and T-shirt to replace his army fatigues.
The first familiar face Paul sees is his ex-girlfriend Kirsten (Nicole Gläser), with whom he tries to inveigle a reunion hook-up to no avail, but one look at a half naked Lene by the pool in the garden and he has a new target for his lust. Max is at first welcoming towards his brother, believing his story about it being temporary leave until a phone from the army reveals the truth.
Similarly in the dark are their parents, current holidaying in Italy, to whom Paul is also deceitful about his absconding from the army. The brothers are then set into a regular routine of the Military Police showing up and Max, against his better judgement, covering for Paul and claiming not to know where he is. In the meantime, while Max is busy, Paul is either trying to win Lene over or simply hooning around town with no particular place to go.
Lene could justifiably be seen as leading Paul on because she can, yet it could also be she is simply an amiable and tactile person, and the kiss on the lips she gave him was a friendly gesture one affords friends and family members. Dropping a major hint as to how much of this is in Paul’s mind, when he is left alone at the house, he puts Lene’s swimming costume on; is this obsession or perversion?
Köhler doesn’t feel the need to explain, and in this instance, maybe it is best he doesn’t, but he can’t be excused for leaving everything else in the film open either. Paul is a very hard person to get a reading on – should we be sympathetic towards him for being trapped in the unpleasant grind of military life, or be angry with him for being wantonly nonchalant and needy?
Conversely, how do we know Max’s ire towards his brother isn’t justified because Paul is historically non-committal and the army is just another fad for him? The picture painted here is that of Max as the unreasonable big brother but Paul’s general apathy would be enough to drive anyone spare, leaving the interpretation open as to whether Köhler is dealing with straight tropes of cunningly subverting them.
Instead of building the characters through the writing, Köhler leaves it to the cast to give them depth and natural, resonant personalities that aren’t constructed or contrived. Lennie Burmeister is rarely expressive as Paul yet conveys the idea he is carrying the weight of more than he is letting on. Trine Dyrholm finds the right balance between free spirit and responsible adult in her portrayal of Lene, leaving enough room for ambiguity in her handling of Pauls’ crush on her.
The final scene is brilliantly constructed and executed, and despite the open ending is not frustrating, unlike the rest of Bungalow. Köhler shows a clear understanding of using cinema as a window to the world in this debut, but the shutters are up a little too much for the view to be as satisfying as its promise.