'Tschick': Film Review

Lago Film/Studiocanal/Mathias Bothor
Teens will dig it, but Akin aficionados will want more.

German director Fatih Akin ('The Edge of Heaven') adapts the cult novel 'Why We Took the Car,' from the late Wolfgang Herrndorf, for the big screen.

Fatih Akin, a Hamburg-born filmmaker of Turkish origins, knows his way around a rough-edged, ink-black and punk-infused love story, as he demonstrated in his Golden Bear winner Head-On, as well as something mysteriously beguiling like his Cannes competition title The Edge of Heaven, a Kieslowskian kaleidoscope of lives that unwittingly intersect. His two Venice-selected films couldn't be more different either: Soul Kitchen was, rather fittingly, a messy, upbeat and finally delicious comedy, while his historical drama The Cut, set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide, never quite managed to reach the epic grandeur it so clearly strived for.

All of his fiction features, however, suggest Akin is the kind of director who likes to challenge himself out of his comfort zone whenever he starts filming a new project. Exactly because of this reason, the idea that Akin would be adapting the late Wolfgang Herrndorf's best-selling YA novel Tschick (translated as Why We Took the Car in English) — about two eighth grade boys who "borrow" someone's beat-up, Soviet-era car for an impromptu road trip through East Germany — sounded very exciting.

But for the most part, the film Akin has delivered is his most workmanlike piece to date, a coming-of-ager that is effective but also surprisingly classically manufactured. There are only a few scenes in which one gets a sense that Akin the auteur rather than Akin the cinema craftsman is at work, which is to say it works perfectly for its teen target audience but will be a bit of a disappointment for international art house aficionados familiar with the director's previous output.

Released locally in mid-September to slightly underwhelming numbers for a film based on a book that has sold over 2 million copies and has been adapted successfully for the German stage as well, the film has now started popping up on the programs of festivals, including Marrakech and Macao.

Maik (Tristan Gobel) is a long-haired and aloof 14-year-old with a crush on the hottest girl in his class, Tatjana (Aniya Wendel). She's throwing a fancy birthday party to which practically everyone is invited — except for Maik and the weirdo sitting next to him, the new-in-town Andrej 'Tschick' Tschichatschow (Munich-born Anand Batbileg, of Mongolian extraction), from a German-speaking minority in Russia.

Andrej, a mostly silent, I-don't-bite-as-long-as-you-don't-come-near-me kind of loner, certainly stands out in his cargo pants and Hawaiian shirts. And besides the I-don't-give-a-damn coolness factor, he also reeks of alcohol and seems to have access to things normally only reserved for adults. Case in point: the blue Lada he shows up in on Maik's doorstep and that he says he "borrows" occasionally. Their initial idea is to use the car to impress Tatjana but around the half-hour mark, they find themselves on the road with a vague couple of ideas of where to go and what to do.

Herrndorf's novel is an update of the classic story of youngsters trying to make it on their own without their parents, a la Lord of the Flies and Huckleberry Finn, and is told from the restrictive point of view of its protagonist, Maik. The film doesn't have a lot of voiceover, however, which is an occasionally frustrating solution since the title character is such a fascinating one. But we're mostly experiencing him from Maik's limited vantage point, and we're not privy to a lot of what he's thinking.

This becomes painstakingly clear in what is, ironically, one of the best and most touching moments in the film, when Tschick has hurt his foot and confesses something to Maik he's never told anyone. Akin and the actors play the moment in the most understated way possible, which is both effective and affecting. But the result of this choice is that the impact of the revelation isn't quite powerful enough to make audiences race back to several earlier moments in the film that take on a somewhat different meaning in hindsight, with the Russian outcast's cool confidence with even the hottest girls, for example, now making a lot more sense for a rather unexpected reason.

There's one other moment that has a touch of poetry as well. It involves Maik, Tschick and a teenage girl called Isa (Nicole Mercedes Mueller, playing a character that was also the protagonist in Herrndorf's unfinished last novel) getting into a lake to lather themselves up with soap after what must have been days on the road without showers. The moment is soberly staged and completely asexual, turning the simple act of washing themselves into a ritual cleansing of sorts. But more transcendent moments like this in which the images take on an added meaning are (too) few and far between. 

Repeated use of Richard Clayderman's romantic piano ballad Ballade pour Adeline, to accompany the boys on their trip, represents an unexpected counterpoint on the soundtrack. This shock tactic of sorts could have been used more often both musically and visually, as quite a few of the choices in these areas are otherwise not quite predictable but still rather on the safe side.

Akin does again demonstrate that he's a solid director of actors. Even someone with as little experience in front of the camera as Batbileg is strong here, with the 13-year-old getting his character's tricky mix of outward daring and bravura and insecure, inner teenage boy just right.

Production companies: Lago Film, Studiocanal Film
Cast: Tristan Gobel, Anand Batbileg, Nicole Mercedes Muller, Anja Schneider, Aniya Wendel, Uwe Bohm, Udo Samel
Director: Fatih Akin
Screenplay: Lars Hubrich, Hark Bohm, Fatih Akin, based on the novel Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf
Producer: Marco Mehlitz
Director of photography: Rainer Klausmann
Production designer: Jenny Rosler
Costume designer: Anna Wubber
Editor: Andrew Bird
Music: Vince Pope
Casting: Ulrike Muller, Jacqueline Rietz
Sales: StudioCanal

No rating, 93 minutes

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