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A 17-year-old German girl working part-time as an office cleaner has a love-hate rapport with one of the Muslim employees in Strange Daughter (Fremde Tochter), the sophomore feature from filmmaker Stephan Lacant. As in his previous film, the queer policemen romance Free Fall, the writer-director excels at suggesting the emotional intensity and the more rational confusion surrounding the unlikely rapport between two people who appear to be polar opposites, though here the impressive and intense first part slowly morphs into a film in which the plot seems to take precedence over any kind of psychological illumination. Nonetheless, this is the kind of finger-on-the-pulse art house fare that reflects issues people in Germany and elsewhere are grappling with, and as such it should travel widely after its world premiere in the New German Cinema section of the Munich Film Festival.
Lena (Elisa Schlott), a brash and boisterous young woman with long hair that’s half pink, half her natural blond, lives with her trashy mother Hannah (Heike Makatsch) in an anonymous apartment in an anonymous German city (the film was shot in Mannheim). One day Lena comes home to find Mom in a neck brace because she decided to wreck one of her employer’s cars on the day she quit her lousy job. Clearly, Mom is a bit of a firebrand who acts before thinking about any possible consequences. Hannah will need paperwork from her ex-employer to qualify for benefits and professional reinsertion, though after she’s damaged his property, she’s unlikely ever to receive those papers. Yes, her employer was a violent, lecherous creep, but Hannah’s rash behavior gave her a one-hour adrenaline rush and then a whole lot of misery for the weeks and possibly months to come.
Hannah’s reckless and irresponsible behavior foreshadows that of her daughter in many ways. The girl skips school a lot of the time, instead preferring to do odd jobs after hours to pay for her nights out. This is how she meets Farid (German-Lebanese actor Hassan Akkouch), a junior employee at an office. Lena is a brat during their first clash, but when Farid, who is an observant Muslim, kills her attitude with kindness, Lena becomes intrigued. It probably doesn’t hurt that he looks extremely dashing with his dark, carefully groomed beard and twinkly eyes (the character is supposedly 19 but Akkouch, who’s about a decade older, simply looks his age here).
Lacant, who again co-wrote his screenplay with Free Fall’s Karsten Dahlem, is a master at suggesting why two people from very different backgrounds could fall in love, whether it’s a supposedly straight policeman and his male colleague or a casually racist party girl and a devout, hard-working Muslim. In both cases, Lacant doesn’t just imply that opposites attract but manages to suggest how someone could fall for a person who on one hand seems different, exciting and risky, and on the other is more familiar and into some of the same things.
When, after several verbal stand-offs, cigarette breaks, intense staring matches and some bathroom nookie, Farid and Lena finally start running around naked in the office late one night, the director manages to illustrate just that: Farid can be a religious man who prays and doesn’t drink, but he’s also fun and sexually attractive, while Lena can be a tough young woman but also someone who has a jocular and less guarded side that’s appealing. Their complex chemistry is believable because they, as people, are complex too. It’s no coincidence that the first time the two show affection for each other in public — on public transport, in the most low-key and thus natural way possible — happens right after this key scene.
But (spoiler alert) things become way more complicated when Lena’s unplanned pregnancy makes their rapport — relationship might still be too strong a term at this point — more visible outside the office. After toying with the idea of an abortion and talking to Farid, Lena decides to keep the baby. That choice will have far-reaching consequences given that the two might have to get married and Lena would have to convert. In what amounts to a fascinating mirror effect, neither Farid’s traditional immigrant family nor Lena’s mother believe this a good idea, though all the blowback only seems to make the young woman more determined to stick to her plan.
The film’s first half is all setup, as Lena and Farid’s exuberant push-pull romance creates a whirlpool of emotions that draws the viewer in. Even if it is only logical that reality will kick in during part two, as tough questions are asked, moral dilemmas faced and bursts of violence bubble up, the seductive intensity and the irrational but believable let’s-just-do-this energy of part one is sorely missed.
That energy could perhaps never be maintained, but the imbalance makes the film’s second half feel much too ordinary, with the plot seemingly influencing how the characters feel rather than vice versa. Lena’s transformation, which is an enormous one from beginning to end, could have used more psychological insight to make the change more credible. Sure, she’s capricious and up for anything — just like her mom — but to make such a profound and intimate conversion convincing, a little more motivation would have helped. A subplot involving a neighborhood kid who’s also in love with Lena could have used more work to draw out its parallels with the main narrative, while a few more intimate scenes like the one in which Farid and Lena spend some time on the bank of the river would have gone a long way in making the protagonist’s journey more psychologically plausible.
That’s not to say the actors aren’t good; quite the contrary. Schlott, who’s 23 in real life and has already starred in more than 20 titles, is a captivating performer, and her chemistry — both negative and positive — with Akkouch feels real. And as her hopeless and desperate mother, Makatsch, who played Alan Rickman’s saucy secretary in Love Actually, impressively manages to keep Hannah from turning into a cliche or caricature.
Cinematographer Michael Kotschi, who worked with Lacant on the very successful TV movie Toter Winkel earlier this year, injects the proceedings with a modern edge, using neon lights and a predominantly blue-greenish color palette. The filmmakers also lucked out with the weather, with the first part, during which the principal characters fall in love, often filled with sunshine, while part two is more overcast and gray as their relationship enters complicated waters. The top technical contribution, however, comes from composers Duerbeck & Dohmen, whose score combines ethnic-sounding wails with electronic noise; the music thus becomes the aural equivalent of the duo’s relationship, caught between cultures and between tradition and modernity.
For the record: There’s an untranslatable pun in the original title, as “Fremde” means not only “strange” but also “foreign” or “foreigner,” and as the film unspools, it becomes increasingly clear that the daughter of the title isn’t necessarily only Lena.
Production company: Kurhaus Production
Cast: Elisa Schlott, Hassan Akkouch, Heike Makatsch
Director: Stephan Lacant
Screenplay: Karsten Dahlem, Stephan Lacant
Producers: Christoph Holthof, Daniel Reich
Director of photography: Michael Kotschi
Production designer: Jurek Kuttner
Costume designer: Bettina Marx
Music: Duerbeck & Dohmen
Editor: Monika Schindler
Venue: Munich Film Festival
In German, Arabic
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