Follow Me: Berlin Review

Garbled, semi-experimental drama of family dysfunction needs considerable trimming.

Multihyphenate Johannes Hammel's film is a tough-going plunge into intergenerational woe, not to mention a blend of experimental and narrative elements.

BERLIN — The latest illustration of Tolstoy's maxim that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, Follow Me is a tough-going plunge into intergenerational woe, not to mention a blend of experimental and narrative elements, mainly shot on black-and-white digital video, then transferred to 35mm. The film intrigues but eventually exasperates. Only limited festival exposure beckons for what is a rather belated segue from shorts to feature-length work for 47-year-old Swiss-born writer/director/editor/producer/co-cinematographer Johannes Hammel.

As that multiplicity of roles indicates, Follow Me is evidently an intensely personal project and an act of personal, perhaps autobiographical expression for Hammel. As often happens when filmmakers edit their own material, what results is a closed circuit of associations and meanings that are likely to remain frustratingly elusive for all but the auteur himself. Hammel has even gone so far as to mix in extracts from 8mm home-movies shot during his own childhood though any connection between these and the fictional events that comprise the main plot remains oblique and perhaps even counterproductive.

The central story strands are confusing enough on their own with two actresses playing the main role of a mentally unstable housewife identified only as Mrs. Blumenthal: Daniela Holtz enjoys the bulk of the screen-time with the older Charlotte Ullrich drifting in and out as her enigmatic alter-ego. Agoraphobic and perhaps manic-depressive, Mrs. Blumenthal resides in a small riverside flat in an unidentified northern German port city with documentary-style footage of port goings-on helping pad out the running-time.

Bespectacled, morose Mr. Blumenthal (Roland Jaeger) is, if anything, even more volatile than his wife, suffering from anger-management issues and seemingly unable to cope with the burden of raising his two young boys, Pius (Simon Jung) and Roman (Karl Fischer). Though occasionally naughty, Pius in particular seems to be remarkably well adjusted given his family background — and given the tough times he experiences at school thanks to religious studies teacher Mr. Denoth (Oskar Fischer). The latter is a sadistic, punishment-oriented martinet obsessively fixated upon the trivial issue of moving from part one of a particular life-of-Jesus textbook (entitled Follow Me!) to part two.

These school sequences unfold with a chilling, blackly comic matter-of-factness, which carries echoes of Michael Haneke and his studies of traumatized childhoods. Elsewhere Hammel repeatedly loses focus with extended sequences of aberrant, crazed behavior on the adults' part, perhaps intended to show how capricious and strange grown-ups can be when seen from juvenile perspectives. Overall it's hard to gauge exactly what points Hammel is trying to put over in a diffuse film, which is often striking to look at thanks to his photographer's eye for visual compositions (especially in those outdoor scenes), but which becomes repetitive in its second half.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production company: Hammelfilm
Cast: Daniela Holtz, Simon Jung, Roland Jaeger, Charlotte Ullrich, Karl Fischer, Oskar Fischer
Director/screenwriter/producer/editor: Johannes Hammel
Directors of photography: Johannes Hammel,  Joerg Burger
Production designer: Andrea Schratzberger
Music: Heinz Ditsch
Costume designer: Alfred Mayerhofer
Sales: Hammelfilm, Vienna
No rating, 109 minutes

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