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A middle-aged Austrian tourist and his even older Jewish translator roam the Slovak countryside in The Interpreter (Tlmocnik). What’s unusual about the situation is that the duo’s parents met in the most tragic circumstances possible, as the Austrian’s father was an obersturmfuehrer with the SS and the Jewish man’s parents were two of his victims. This setup could have made for a harrowing or heavy-handed drama but instead, writer-director Martin Sulik (The City of the Sun) pours his film into a road-movie template, mixing introspective moments with the genre’s prerequisite comedic — if thankfully never quite feel-good — elements. It’s a tough balancing act that Sulik and his co-writer, Marek Lescak, manage to pull of until a final twist that’s so cheap it threatens to destroy the slowly earned goodwill the audience will have likely built up toward the characters and the complexity of their shared history.
This Berlinale Special title should nonetheless draw interest, especially European distributors. A cut that omits the fatal misstep would improve the film’s theatrical potential greatly. The presence of Czech actor-director Jiri Menzel and Peter Simonischek — the father from Toni Erdmann — should further help it get noticed, particularly in the Central European marketplace.
The film opens with the Vienna arrival of Slovak translator Ali Ungar (Menzel), with a gun in his pocket, who’s come to visit someone. But the person he’s looking for, namely the SS member who killed his parents, has died and it is Georg (Simonischek), the war criminal’s paunchy, middle-aged son, who opens the door instead.
The first encounter between the men lasts only a few minutes but both sense there’s some unfinished business between them that needs to be addressed. This leads them on a road trip to Slovakia, where Georg’s father spent most of his time during the war. Their initial rapport is of course not without friction. When Ali explains how their parents met, Georg is not impressed and scoffs: “My Dad has had hundreds of people shot.” But when Ali subsequently calls him an anti-Semitic pig, Georg feels the need to point out that he is no such thing.
Georg turns out to be something of a bon vivant who tries to make the most of life while Ali is a more pensive presence. Their very different attitudes toward life are contrasted not only with each other but also with the people they meet along the way, like the two young Slovak women (Anna Rakovska, Eva Kramerova) Georg decides to give a ride and who initially seem to be happy-go-lucky youngsters until one of them reveals a dark story from her recent past. The constant juxtaposition of life’s cruelty and its comedy strikes a particularly Mitteleuropean tone that’s reminiscent of the work of Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, especially in the way anecdotal material often reveals much larger truths about life.
Sulik and Lescak suggest practically from the get-go that the behavior of both characters is essentially a reaction to their dark past, with one of them intentionally taking a big step back from acts that were not committed by himself and the other if not quite wallowing in at least always aware of what befell his family and his people. It helps that Menzel and especially Simonischek are such expressive actors, suggesting their characters’ humanity through looks and gestures that often add nuance to or even contradict the dialogue.
Not everything fully works. A bit involving Halloween masks feels like an awkward nod to Toni Erdmann more than something funny or revealing of character and some of the more obviously comedic material feels a little creaky, like when the duo ends up in a hotel room with just one big bed (though two mattresses, so technically twin beds). But the prickly rapport between the elderly gentlemen always convinces and even deepens when they meet Ali’s daughter, Edita (played by Slovak acting luminary Zuzana Maurery).
In a simple but very effective scene, Edita asks the question that will be on a lot of audience members’ minds as well: “How can you be friends with an SS guy?” to which her father replies with a very simple: “But he was not in the SS,” revealing our tendency to equate the acts of fathers with that of their children in cases such as these. In what is one of the film’s strongest scenes, she tries to be friendly to Georg but still calls him out when he equates two things that are a bridge too far for her. The exchange is written in a straightforward way, without frills, and played in a way that cuts directly to the bone. One point of view might be more valid than the other but it’s undeniable that both are trying, however clumsily, to find a way to connect and bridge their differences while also claiming their own humanity. Where the weightier themes are concerned, the film often wisely observes rather than preaches or lectures, which means it finally works remarkably well in a road-trip format, which is itself rooted in observational humor.
At around the 90-minute mark, the episodic, almost two-hour film starts to feel a little repetitive. And this sensation is not aided by the fact the same few notes from Vladimir Godar’s score keep being used as transitions between the scenes. The film’s biggest issue, however, is a grotesque twist that Sulik tries to handle with restraint, setting up a possible end for that unexpected subplot without actually showing its end. But the nature of the surprise sprung upon the audience is such that it nonetheless cheapens the entire film’s effort to try and come to a greater understanding of the experiences of these children from the war from both sides. Since it is neither foreshadowed nor leads to a conclusion that changes anything, the film would play much better without it.
Technically, the feature looks polished from top to bottom.
Production companies: Titanic, In Film Praha, Coop 99, RTVS, Ceska Televize
Cast: Jiri Menzel, Peter Simonischek, Zuzana Maurery, Attila Mokos, Anna Rakovska, Eva Kramerova, Karol Simon, Judita Hansman, Igor Hrabinsky, Reka Derzsi, Anita Szvrcsek
Director: Martin Sulik
Screenplay: Marek Lescak, Martin Sulik
Producers: Rudolf Biermann, Martin Sulik, Bruno Wagner
Director of photography: Marin Strba
Production designer: Frantisek Liptak
Costume designer: Katarina Holla
Editor: Olina Kaufmanova
Music: Vladimir Godar
Casting: Ingrid Hodalova, Margareta Abena
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
Venue: Berlinale (Berlinale Special)
In German, Slovak, Russian, Ukrainian
No rating, 113 minutes
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