Germany (2013) Dir. Jakob Lass
Hotels and similar service establishments are something we all take for granted, some more than others *cough* rock stars *cough*. It’s not just the services they provide but the people on the serving end we expect to be at our beck and call 24/7 – we seem to forget they have lives too.
Mild-mannered Clemens (Franz Rogowski) begins his new job as a trainee masseur at a seaside spa in Northern Germany, finding himself at the bottom of the totem pole from the offset. With no available staff lodgings for him, Clemens has to make do with the storage room that the laundry trolleys pass through leaving him with little privacy, whilst the staff toilets make do for his ablutions.
Of the other staff, the only one Clemens connects with is Lara (Lana Cooper), a feisty, playful, free spirited junior chef prone to juvenile pranks and heavy drinking. Clemens comes to Lara’s rescue after a heavy night and she seeks to repay him by bringing him out of his shell. Gradually, these two opposites attract but can they help each other or is this a disaster in the making?
Not quite a manic pixie dream girl tale the above précis might suggest, Love Steaks does flirt with this premise though it serves more as a conduit for a deeper story about how to deal with problems and, crucially, how not to deal with them. Jakob Lass is a director I am not familiar with yet from this film, I can see he has a style that no doubt stands out as his own, albeit with some palpable influences.
Shot at a real spa resort with the majority of the roles played by real staff and guests, this is a pseudo-look at the backroom happenings of the hospitality business with less of a debt to The Office that it might seem, though its sillier moments with Lara do carry distant echoes. Informed by the jerky skip-editing style a’la Godard’s Breathless, and the carefree frolics of the main couple, if Lass is a fan of French New Wave, he is wearing this influence on his widest sleeve.
From his minimalist appearance of an anorak and backpack, Clemens gives off a slight hippy vibe so masseur and aromatherapist does appear to be a suitable job for him. That he changes in front of his female HR manager implies a slight issue with normal social conventions, otherwise his good natured manner holds him in good stead. His training includes how to remove negative energy with his hands, one Office-esque moment I alluded to earlier.
Lara is the polar opposite in her energy, attitude, outlook, and respect for the rules but isn’t depicted as a necessarily bad person. However, starting food fights and jumping out on head chef Mr. Popp (Eric Popp) in a monster mask are not acts conducive to the usual tight ship found in the kitchens. Much of this is fuelled by Lara’s drinking, not limited to a hip flask or crafty swigs of the cooking wine, although don’t tell her she has a problem because she’ll only deny it.
The script hovers tenuously over the idea that she will be a bad influence on Clemens, which is true, but it is isn’t a case of him entering into this with his eyes shut. After their initial meeting, which was Clemen’s initiation of being thrown into the hotel pool, the next time is when he finds Lara out of her box and adorned with her own vomit. Being the gentlemen he is, Clemens cleans Lara up and tries to get her sober too.
By way of a thank you, Lara sneaks a piece of steak out for Clemens but this teetotaller also doesn’t eat meat because of course he doesn’t. However, the fuse has been lit and the pair find themselves drawn together on a purely platonic level, that others are quick to believe is more – like concierge Mr. Winter (Ralf Winter), warning them not to turn the storage room into a den of iniquity on his watch. I hope Winter’s Gareth Keenan-lite performance here isn’t a reflection on what he is like in real life.
Returning the French New Wave influence, a lot of the scenes of Clemens and Lara are really just them larking about – in one instance they take over an empty room and zoom about of chairs with rollers, their movements so childish and abandoned yet laid out and shot in a balletic style, as they spin around or glide across the floor as if they were in dodgem cars. Then again, there is also the penis discussion scene…
Inevitably, things get a bit deeper between them, starting with a pact – Clemens has to be more assertive and Lara will stop drinking. Guess which one breaks it? Without giving anything way, the fall out and conclusion breaks down to the two leads just being who they are and doing what they do. Lass keeps it open as to which one really changed and which one didn’t or if the chemistry was a result of opposite attracts.
Via an incendiary denouement which marries discordant punk rock with brutal visuals, Lass gives us the ending we and the characters deserve that can’t be deemed ironic or symbolic yet is somehow apposite in lieu of the journey that brought us to this point. In Lana Cooper, we have someone capable of presenting Lara as a tacit tragic figure without signposting her mercurial flaws, whilst as Clemens, Franz Rogowski cements his place as one of modern cinema’s most dependable chameleons.
Admittedly too quirky for mainstream tastes, Love Steaks is a 90-minute whirlwind of quotidian drama and childish giggles surrounding a tender, often abstruse romance, told from an ADHD viewpoint, yet remains a faithfully human story. Lass touches on every aspect of this journey with a naturalistic approach, set within an authentic environment and illuminated by the spark ignited between the two leads.