What You Don't See -- Film Review

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BERLIN -- A strange and often fascinating melange of Hollywood psychological thriller and German romantic philosophy, "What You Don't See" (Was Du Nicht Siehst), the first film of 40-year-old Wolfgang Fischer, won't be liked by everyone. However, this broodingly dark and intermittently powerful film is highly evocative, and those who do like it will like it a lot. Similarly, what some may describe as a confused mess, others will find thematically rich.

Given the diversity of opinion that the film is likely to encounter, robust sales don't seem to be in the picture. Owing to its high production values, however, international ancillary sales, especially for television, should be excellent. A decent life on DVD also seems likely.

When we first meet the teenage Anton, he is on his way from Germany, with his mother and her lover, to a vacation rental in Brittany. Anton feels alienated from Paul, and something of a third wheel around the couple, because, as we learn much later, his real father has committed suicide and neither he nor his mother has fully recovered. When they arrive, Anton discovers next door a rather brutal young man named David, who is living with a beautiful girl, named Katja, who is the same age as Anton. This pair challenges the callow youth in fundamental ways he has never experienced before. Murder and mayhem soon follow.

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Director Fischer, who seems to have been through a particularly long apprenticeship, is very good at creating an overarching sense of dread. He does this primarily the old-fashioned way, with lots of subjective tracking shots that end up startling us or revealing nothing at all. Another one of his successful tricks is a soundtrack of ethereal voices that hint at the otherworldly.

The film is also imbued with a curious sense of German nature philosophy, especially in a haunting, celebratory scene in which the frolicking kids romp in the woods. Violence is in the air as well, but it's doled out in small if regular installments, and the evil couple who corrupt and psychologically torment Anton will make many think of the sick twosome in Haneke's "Funny Games." But while Anton is intimidated by David, he's also fascinated by him, and the complex interplay between them motivates much of the action. In David's chilling assertion that "I too used to be afraid until I found out that you can do anything you want," an echo of another German philosophical figure, Friedrich Nietzsche, can be heard, as well as the famous case of the cold-blooded murderers Leopold and Loeb that Hitchcock turned into "Rope."

At the end, we're left hanging, and some viewers won't be happy with that. David and Katja mysteriously disappear, sort of right before our eyes. Were they merely figures in Anton's dream? No, there's too much evidence of real violence left behind. Do they symbolize the evil that lies within Anton and, by implication, all human beings? Perhaps. Or do they simply represent Anton's Oedipal conflict with Paul? The film's last shot, of a car traveling uphill over a curving road, is the mirror image of the first shot, suggesting the cyclical nature of all things.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival -- German Cinema
Production Companies: Lichtblick Film
Cast: Ludwig Trepte, Frederick Lau, Alice Dwyer, Bibiana Beglau, Andreas Patton
Director: Wolfgang Fischer
Screenwriter: Wolfgang Fischer
Producer: Joachim Ortmanns
Director of photography: Martin Gschlacht
Production designer: Sebastian Soukop
Music: Wilhelm Stegmeier
Costume designer: Annegret Stossel
Editor: Isabel Meier
No rating, 89 minutes
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