Young Europeans’ swerve toward the right and far right gets another movie thrown at it with the premiere of Je Suis Karl, from German director Christian Schwochow (November Child, Cracks in the Shell). The film tries to follow in the footsteps of previous German-language films such as The Edukators, The Wave and last year’s And Tomorrow the Entire World, all works that attempt to figure out what it is about political extremes that seduces young people — and how their idealism and hormone-powered gumption can eventually come head-to-head with the much uglier realities of politics and life.
Though spirited performances bring the material to life to an extent, the screenplay never quite manages to make the extreme conversion of its main character, who lost her mother and siblings in a terrorist attack in Berlin, credible. This, in turn, makes the project’s prospects beyond home turf something of a question mark, though streamers looking for topical fare will want to take a look. The Berlinale stamp of approval — where it screened as a Special Gala — certainly can’t hurt.
Maxi (Luna Wedler) is the peroxide-blonde daughter of Berliner Alex (Milan Peschel). They live in the German capital with Alex’s partner, the French Ines (Melanie Fouche), and Maxi’s younger twin siblings. We don’t get to see a lot of their family life, however, as early on a package is delivered that contains a terrorist bomb that destroys much of the building in which the family — and quite a few others — live. The destructive explosion is staged without major special effects, with Schwochow instead concentrating on a hit bird falling down amid the dust and debris. It is an interesting metaphor even if the entire scene strains too hard to find a kind of poetry in the clearly rather staged and written moment.
Alex himself miraculously survives because he’s just left the building to pick up some stuff from his car. Maxi had also left home before the explosion. But Ines and the kids, as well as seven others, die. It is then that Maxi drifts away from her father and into the orbit of the handsome titular Karl (Jannis Niewoehner), who knows how to exploit her rage and confusion for his own ends. Karl is involved in the fictional Re/Generation Europe movement, which peddles a “polished” and marketable version of extreme right ideas. (It is clearly inspired by the Identitarian Movement, which in turn regroups factions such as Generation Identitaire in France and Identitaere Bewegung Oesterreichs in Austria.) At first, Maxi’s only attending their gatherings as an onlooker, but the movie is predictable enough for viewers to be certain that she’ll climb onto a rally stage and into the spotlight herself before long.
Schwochow has recently been more active in high-profile TV, directing, among others, the “Prince of Wales learns Welsh” episode of The Crown and the first season of the successful German series Bad Banks. From those ventures, he seems to have picked up a knack for staging scenes for maximum impact on a tight budget. (The frequent shallow focus and densely saturated hues also feel music-video ready.) But on the flip side, there’s a sense that he’s frequently content to let his characters drift a little in their scenes. That’s not an issue when character arcs are planned over several seasons. But too often throughout the two jam-packed hours here, there’s a nagging sense that Schwochow and his screenwriter, Thomas Wendrich, make the characters simply perform their actions rather than feel or live them, eager to move on to the next plot point without waiting for the emotional beats that follow the actions.
This is highlighted by the handful of moments when we are reminded that the protagonists actually do have feelings, such as a wonderful scene in which Maxi explains to Karl why she misses her mother. But here, too, something’s missing, as the short-lived focus on Maxi’s emotional state seems to eclipse a very necessary sense of how Karl feels about this (or might be calculating how or when to use this new knowledge to his advantage).
The extent to which Karl and his political pals are willing to go to obtain their goals is a radical and perhaps narratively even brave choice that Je Suis Karl doesn’t quite know how to milk for drama because it hasn’t dramatized Karl as a character beyond his function as an avatar for real-life European leaders. Ditto the treatment (or lack thereof) of the refugee Maxi’s parents help cross the border in a prologue. Its placement is so obvious and his characterization so perfunctory that you just know he will be used as a deux ex machina during the film’s flying-bullets final act.
What remains are quite a few charismatic performances. Niewoehner is asked to be magnetic, and that he is, even if his character often seems more in love with the spotlight that his political ideas afford him rather than with the ideas themselves. Wedler and Peschel, as the rebellious daughter and the distraught, grieving father who don’t understand each other anymore, are also credible in their odd-couple configuration. It’s just a shame we don’t get to know them better, because the world could use another film or two about the dangerous allure of the extreme right and how it preys on people who are eager to finally have an outlet for all their anger and frustration.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale Special — Gala)
Production companies: Pandora Film Produktion, Negativ Film Productions, WDR, ARD, RBB, Arte
Cast: Jannis Niewoehner, Luna Wedler, Milan Peschel, Edin Hasanovic, Anna Fialova, Fleur Geffrier, Aziz Dyab, Marlon Boess, Victor Boccard, Melanie Fouche, Elizaveta Maximova
Director: Christian Schwochow
Screenplay: Thomas Wendrich
Producers: Christoph Friedel, Claudia Steffen
Cinematography: Frank Lamm
Production design: Tim Pannen
Costume design: Frauke Firl
Editing: Jens Klueber
Music: Tom Hodge, Floex
Casting: Anja Dihrberg-Siebler
Sales: The Match Factory
In German, French, English, Czech
No rating, 126 minutes