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A shy trainee massage therapist at a luxury hotel on the German coast strikes up a very unusual friendship with a loud, no-nonsense apprentice from the kitchen in Love Steaks, the second feature of precocious filmmaker Jakob Lass (the film school he attends, Konrad Wolf, produced this low-budget project).
The first film of what could potentially become a new filmmaking movement — called Fogma, with a clear wink to Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 manifesto that kicked off a renaissance in Danish cinema — Love Steaks combines improvisation in scenes with a planned overall narrative structure and introduces two professional actors into an actual hotel environment, with the establishment’s real personnel in all the supporting roles. This combination of planning and reliance on experience on the one hand and provoked spontaneity on the other infuses the entire project with a remarkable energy that suggests anything could happen while ensuring the entire enterprise doesn’t derail.
The film won awards at the recent Slamdance, Max Ophuls and Saas-Fee film festivals, was a surprise best film nominee at the Lolas, the German Oscars, and opened commercially in Germany March 27. Festivals and distributors offshore showcasing new talent will love this.
Spindly and maladroit Clemens (Franz Rogowski) is both timid and homeless when he arrives at the luxury resort where he’ll start his apprenticeship and where he’s allowed to sleep on a mattress in the laundry room. Besides learning about massage techniques and bodily energies, he’s assigned to keep the wellness area clean, which provides the film with some of its most uproarious moments of slapstick, as Clemens repeatedly slips on the wet floors of his own creation.
In the hotel restaurant’s kitchen works Lara (Lana Cooper), who likes to joke and prance about with her kitchen colleagues, much to the dismay of her superiors. Her loud, exaggeratedly happy-happy façade almost manages to hide the fact that’s she’s got a serious drinking problem.
Lara and Clemens grow closer after he has dragged her back to the hotel from the beach, where she’d passed out, drunk and covered in her own vomit. He opens up to her about the occasionally wildly inappropriate behavior of his clientele, while she tries to help him crawl out of his protective shell. Lass is very good at using small details to reveal character and infuse the proceedings with humor, such as when Lara shows her appreciation of Clemens’s friendship by smuggling meat and alcohol to his laundry room, only to discover he’s a vegetarian teetotaler.
Besides Clemens’s rather vaguely defined sexuality — at one point, Lara forces him to confess his love to a male colleague — the couple’s growing rapport is organic and believable. It is reinforced by editor Gesa Jaeger’s judicious choices of material from reportedly over 80 hours of footage.
Lass and Jaeger manage to keep things playful even as darker themes develop, not only cutting to Clemens’s slapstick behavior but also throwing in the occasional jumpcut and contrasting material in interesting ways, such as in a funny montage sequence in which massaged flesh downstairs and meat being prepared upstairs are juxtaposed to the propulsive rhythms of Golo Schultz’s percussion-driven score. Like the neat balance of the scripted story arc and improvised scenes, the humor not only suggests who these two characters are but helps keep the film from toppling under its own dramatic weight as it moves into darker territory.
From the initially enigmatic first shot, Timon Schaeppi’s cinematography, in widescreen and with clear vignetting in the corners, is entirely in tune with the energy of the material. Some of his visuals are simple yet superb, such as a shot through the back window of the car Lara’s driving but shouldn’t be; a police vehicle come into view behind the glass, in the distance, while the foreground is filled with Lara’s cargo: pineapples, of which only the ornamental tops are seen bobbing up and down as her car moves.
Surrounded by non-professionals, both Cooper and Rogowski give thoroughly lived-in performances that make them fit right in. Crucially, their strange, inexplicable attraction feels absolutely natural.
Opens: March 27 (in Germany)
Production companies: Hochschule fuer Film und Fernsehen Konrad Wolf, Mamoko Entertainment
Cast: Lana Cooper, Franz Rogowski
Director: Jakob Lass
Screenwriters: Jakob Lass, Ines Schiller, Timon Schaeppi, Nico Woche
Producers: Ines Schiller, Golo Schultz
Director of photography: Timon Schaeppi
Production designer: Caspar Pichner
Music: Golo Schultz
Editor: Gesa Jaeger
No rating, 80 minutes.
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