A pernickety pedicurist who’s on his phone while driving is stopped by a hulking traffic policeman with a heart of gold at the start of Finsterworld, an unusual but very effective dark fairytale that’s the fiction debut of German documentary director Frauke Finsterwalder.
Looking at several loosely connected stories, the film explores German identity and the inability of people to be truly themselves and admit to others who they really are or what they really want. A sophisticated screenplay and beautiful camerawork both support a very solid line-up of actors that includes veterans such as Corinna Harfouch (Frau Goebbels from Downfall) and up-and-comers such as Jakub Gierszal (Suicide Room), Carla Juri (Wetlands) and Shia LaBeouf lookalike Leonard Scheicher (Sources of Life).
The film will be released in Germany in October and had its international premiere at the Montreal film festival. It’s a shoo-in for further festival play and has an outside chance of theatrical pickups by niche distributors not afraid of films that cannot be reduced to a simple marketing slogan.
Finsterworld feels like a sprawling mosaic in the first reel, as new characters and situations keep being introduced, but as the story progresses the relationships and the characters’ predicaments crystallize quickly and clearly. The opening’s precious pedicurist, Claude (Michael Maertens), is on his way to his favorite client, the elderly Mrs. Sandberg (Margit Carstensen). Her middle-aged son (Bernhard Schutz) and his demanding wife (Harfouch) need to travel to Paris but can’t get a plane so they decide to drive (“no Nazi cars!” she barks into the phone at the agent that needs to find her a rental car).
The Sandbergs’ preppy son (Gierszal) is on a school trip during which he bullies easy target Dominik (Scheicher) and his only friend, the bespectacled Natalie (Juri). Initially, it’s just verbal taunts but at the concentration camp they’re visiting with their class and their self-satisfied teacher (Christoph Bach), things go from bad to worse.
A separate strand examines the relationship of a documentary-maker (German star Sandra Huller) in crisis and her boyfriend, Tom (Ronald Zehrfeld), the cop who stopped Claude in the opening and who, despite his uniform or perhaps because of it, turns out to be someone in dire need of some human warmth. At a somewhat compromising moment involving a change of outfit, Tom’s spied upon by a man (Johannes Krisch) who lives in the forest, apparently in harmony with nature.
Most of the characters lack something in their lives and struggle to obtain or even define it, something that might in part be due to a lack of role models for Germans, as one of the characters suggests. Indeed, Finsterwalder is so ambitious she tackles big topics such as German identity head-on, putting some very intelligent revelations in the mouth of some of her youngest protagonists.
As editor Andreas Menn nimbly goes back and forth between the various strands, slightly surreal and occasionally dark details emerge that give the film a troubling undercurrent that’s a reflection of the unease many of the protagonists feel. Somewhat ironically, the character of the overly idealistic documentary director comes off as the person who’s most unwilling or unable to see what’s happening right in front of her eyes. Thankfully, Finsterwalder doesn’t have the same problem.
Germany looks eternally sunny and lovely in Markus Forderer’s beautiful cinematography, lending the proceedings another surreal edge and a clear contrast to what’s discussed and shown. The rest of the craft contributions are also impressive.
Production companies: Walker + Worm, Lhasa Films, BR, Arte
Cast: Ronald Zehrfeld, Sandra Hueller, Michael Maertens, Margit Carstensen, Corinna Harfouch, Bernhard Schutz, Johannes Krisch, Christoph Bach, Carla Juri, Leonard Scheicher, Max Pellny, Jakub Gierszal
Director: Frauke Finsterwalder
Screenwriters: Frauke Finsterwalder, Christian Kracht
Producers: Tobias Walker, Philipp Worm
Director of photography: Markus Forderder
Production designer: Katharina Woppermann
Music: Michaela Melian
Costume designer: Lotte Sawatski
Editor: Andreas Menn
No rating, 90 minutes.