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The last months, weeks and days of a German DIY store that’s part of a chain that went bankrupt is chronicled in Sabrina Jaeger’s low-key but promising first feature, The Price Was Key (Hier Sprach Der Preis). As the discounts grow steeper, the shelves become emptier and the number of days left quickly dwindle, Jaeger follows the few brave employees who are forced to look after the store until everything’s gone. This horrible process and the equally terrible prospect of a future without a job is no-doubt familiar to millions across Europe and elsewhere and one that this modest non-fiction film manages to capture in fascinating and frequently telling detail. Though not without some technical issues, this Cinema du Reel premiere nonetheless establishes Jaeger as a young name to watch in the documentary domain.
The Praktiker chain of DIY stores in Germany went belly-up in 2013 and most of its stores had to simply close, including the one in Heidelsheim, near Karlsruhe and the French border. The film opens with a farewell party organized by some of the employees after the store was closed for good. Someone has brought a cake that’s rather ironically decorated with a marzipan buzzsaw cutting into the company logo, already suggesting Jaeger has a good eye for suggestive visuals.
Quite a few people are present at the party, which stands in large contrast to the film proper that the director started shooting three months earlier, when only three employees, Marina and Elena at the cash registers and administrative employee Sven in the back office, are forced to keep the shop running because all of their other colleagues have called in “sick”.
The film follows especially the ladies during these three slow-moving months, as they have to deal with Nigel, an Englishman who speaks next to no German and whose company has bought up the store’s inventory they are now trying to sell off at heavily discounted prices. Marina’s been with Praktiker for 15 years and Elena for seven, though the latter’s only been back a few months after a long maternal leave and therefore doesn’t qualify for most of the benefits offered. This is an eternal source of worry for her and something to talk about for the women, who feel that management doesn’t seem to care about them or their fate even though they have dedicated years of their lives to the store. This in turn speaks volumes about the unhealthy relationship between employees and the large chain stores where they work and where management decisions are exclusively made with money in mind in some faraway place where workers are nothing more but numbers.
On the ground, the communication problems between Nigel, who has to decide on the discount rates to try and maximize profits, and the girls are not only a source of friction but also of some of the film’s very welcome if occasionally somewhat uneasy humor. Sven’s confrontation with a very unhappy client, who’s opened every one of his cans of paint and now wants to give them all back, is also wryly comic, as the angry customer scoffs: “I hope you go bankrupt!” and Sven dryly replies: “We already have”.
Jaeger, who edited the film together with her fellow producer Stephan Weiner, doesn’t rely on explanatory texts, voiceovers or extensive interview material. Instead, to chronicle this rather commonplace everyday tragedy, they simply cut together the footage Jaeger herself shot at the store over those last three months in a straightforward, occasionally somewhat baggy but mostly effective manner. The framing isn’t always great but the director does have a good eye for detail, such as the potted flowers that hold a “closed” sign in place at a service counter, with the yellow Chrysanthemums slowly wilting as the days pass and the counter stays closed.
Since neither Marina nor Elena have any technical DIY knowledge and all the other employees are at home, customers with questions cannot be helped in any way, which leads to some tragicomic situations. Similarly, the oft-repeated discount slogans Elena’s forced to announce over the store’s PA system and the shop’s terribly upbeat muzak are cleverly used by the filmmakers to underline how what’s supposed to contribute to a happy shopping experience rings entirely hollow in a store that’s gone bankrupt and is about to close for good.
The title of the film is a sly reference to the chain’s marketing slogan, which used to be “Praktiker: The Price Is Key”.
Production companies: Filmproduktion Jaeger/Weiner
Director: Sabrina Jaeger
Screenplay: Sabrina Jaeger, Stephan Weiner
Producers: Sabrina Jaeger, Stephan Weiner
Director of photography: Sabrina Jaeger
Editors: Sabrina Jaeger, Stephan Weiner
No rating, 72 minutes
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