Germany (2018) Dir. Steffen Hacker
Memories are precious things to cherish but can also be unreliable at the best of times, worsening as we get older. This isn’t just related to special personal recollections, there are times when accuracy of details is crucial to a specific case – forget these or get them muddled up, and it could have disastrous results.
Felicitas (Esther Maaß) is having therapy with Dr. Jung (Ralph Honicke) to help her patch together the confused fragments of visions she has about her past via hypnosis. When it gets a bit much, Feli takes a long dreamed trip to Thailand for a break, leaving boyfriend Titus (Adrian Topol) behind. There she meets local girl Gai (Jan Yousagoon), who acts as Feli’s tour guide and they hit the clubs together.
However, trouble soon follows and Gai ends up dead although Feli isn’t quite clear what happened. She returns to Germany distraught, and checking her phone, finds a video from Gai warning her of danger and telling her to find a photo of her and her best friend Natascha (Judith Hoersch). Feli can’t find it so she visits Natascha in the mental hospital she has been in for years, setting off a peculiar and unexpected chain of events.
Every so often one comes across a film that appears to be heading in one direction then goes in a completely different one, so unexpected it is hard to discern whether it’s a cool twist or someone trying too hard to surprise us. Ingenium is such a film. The debut from director Steffen Hacker and screenwriter Michael Knoll begins with all the hallmarks of developing into a psychological drama before morphing into sci-fi for the final act.
It borders on being a drastic, jarring leap until hindsight reveals it was slowly edging its way towards us with a few well-hidden clues to suggest it is coming. This provides sufficient distraction to make us think this is a psychological thriller, so in that respect, credit to Knoll for his handling of this. But as ever, when sci-fi is applied to the “real world”, credibility and plausibility can only be stretched so far and I can see this being hard for some to swallow.
As it stands, the basic plot is linear despite the uncertainty of Feli’s mania. It opens with Feli and Natascha meeting for the first time as children at an orphanage, after Feli lost her parents in a car crash. Natascha has a habit of telling tall tales which get wilder as she gets older, turning into visions that haunt her. Eventually, Natascha is committed to a mental hospital, but a scared Feli runs away rather than help her.
Now it is Feli’s turn to experience visions, of things she knows and things she doesn’t but feels she should know. Dr. Jung (yeah, I know) feels the hypnotherapy is working but Feli is unconvinced, but at least she has her medication, which Titus has to encourage a reluctant Feli to take. What she is afraid of if she does, and what he is afraid of if she doesn’t is not explained, like much in this film.
The Thailand trip drops another clue to foreshadow the big plot twist, yet nobody will notice, as it isn’t meant to be noticed. Returning to Germany, Feli suffers a mental block, forgetting she had moved out of her apartment, ending up arguing with the new tenant. Is this trauma affecting Feli’s memory or is she really losing her mind? The way Feli is a painted as paranoid victim is a vital to convincing us she has deep-rooted psychological issues.
Visiting the old orphanage to find the photo in Gai’s video message, Feli finds a homeless man (Tony De Maeyer) living in the burned out remains. He claims Natascha returns now and then, often with cuts and bruises to her face. Feli visits Natascha at the hospital, finding her a comatose husk of her old self, until Feli shows her the photo she is after. Suddenly, Natascha goes feral and the nurses have to sedate her, with Feli witnessing something unbelievable.
Other reviews of this film happily give away the plot twist, but I shall refrain otherwise I will end up greatly exceeding my 1000 word limit in discussing it. As I said before, it will prove divisive – the clues are there once you think back to earlier scenes, thus it makes for an unpredictable swerve; yet, without sufficient explanation for this, and we are left without one, this is pretty much feels like as deus ex machina as it gets.
Yet, it leads us to a busy third act as now we have a reason for the action, and this twist affords Feli the chance to be a protagonist with renewed purpose. The big issue is that the antagonist is unknown to us until his arrival, and his motives are barely outlined for us to understand what the stakes are. Even Feli’s new cause is clouded by a similar lack of exposition, and after the cleverness involved in the build up, it is shame it all collapses when it matters the most.
Steffen Hacker is a former special effects creator – ironically not responsible for it here – and knows how to make his film look good with a modest budget, helped by fluid and adventurous editing, which Hacker did do himself. He is a competent director, blessed with having Esther Maaß as his star, carrying the film with a multi-layered take on Feli’s journey from psychosis victim to righteous heroine.
When a film shows so much promise then teeters on that precipice, only to take step back, it’s a shame. Ingenium is full of ideas but at 84-minutes really needed another 20 to flesh them out and bring them together satisfactorily. It’s not a bad film overall, with the individual parts working well, the lack of explanation for the plot twist will incur the negative feelings of less tolerable audiences.