'West' (Westen): Film Review
A single mother emigrating from East to West Germany in the '70s finds it less welcoming than expected.
NEW YORK – Escaping Communist East Germany is no simple matter in Christian Schwochow's West, the story of a mother and son who cross the border with ease but have a much harder time finding normalcy in the West. Smartly acted and scripted with insight into its protagonist's emotional baggage, the film is less than action-packed and may frustrate viewers who expect resolution in plotlines that turn out not to be the point. To the contrary, the point is uncertainty and learning to live with unease; the lesson should find a modest but receptive audience when Main Street opens the film later this year.
Three years after the father of her son dies during an academic trip to Moscow, Nelly Senff (Jordis Triebel) decides to leave East Germany, finding it foreign and threatening in his absence. But though West Germany has a well-established system for welcoming refugees from its sister country — Nelly and son Alexej (guileless Tristan Gobel) are immediately given a temporary apartment and a week's worth of meals — the acceptance comes with a bureaucratic price Nelly resents having to pay: She will only become a citizen (and hence eligible for a job) after collecting a series of stamps on her application card, each of which involves an invasive inspection or interview.
One of these interviews, with American intelligence officials known as the Allied Security Services, raises a troubling idea that hasn't yet occurred to Nelly: that her lover Wassilij did not die, but defected after years of being a collaborator with the Stasi. It's surprising that Nelly hadn't already considered the possibility, but she makes up for lost time in taking it to heart: She begins to have visions of him and to suspect duplicity in others who offer help — most poignantly in Hans (Alexander Scheer), a lonely man who strikes up a fatherly friendship with Alexej.
Heide Schwochow's screenplay gives us just enough information about Hans and Nelly for us to accept their difficulties in embracing the supposedly boundless possibilities of West German democracy and human rights. It is less helpful with John Bird (Jacky Ido), the American agent who sleeps with Nelly after explaining his hunch that Wassilij is not just alive but living anonymously nearby. Ido plays the agent as an honest man out of place in a world of secrecy and diplomatic lies; something is missing in the dramatization of his betrayal of a wife we never see.
That blind spot is the only case in which Schwochow's film — with its hand-held but not queasy camerawork that perfectly matches its unsettled narrative — fails to justify giving us less clarity than we want. Elsewhere, its withholding nature perfectly matches the uncertain, mixed-feelings world Nelly lives in, regardless of the changed political realities that may surround her.
Production company: Zero One Film
Cast: Jordis Triebel, Alexander Scheer, Tristan Gobel, Jacky Ido
Director: Christian Schwochow
Screenwriter: Heide Schwochow; based on the novel "Lagerfeuer" by Julia Franck
Producers: Katrin Schlosser, Thomas Kufus, Christoph Friedel
Director of photography: Frank Lamm
Production designer: Tim Pannen
Costume designer: Kristin Schuster
Editor: Jens Kluber
Music: Lorenz Dangel
No rating, 97 minutes