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The hot-button topics of immigration, assimilation and xenophobia are front and center in Burhan Qurbani’s We Are Young. We Are Strong., a dramatization of an episode that pitted violent locals against frightened refugees in 1992 Germany. Exploring the so-called Night of Fire, which gripped the former East German port city of Rostock, the writer-director effectively taps into a sense of dislocation on both sides of the standoff: the drifting, disaffected youth unsure of their place in a newly unified nation, and the young Vietnamese immigrants who become the designated targets of wide-ranging fear and blind hatred.
The movie, which continued its robust fest run as the opening-night selection of the German Currents series in Los Angeles, stubbornly remains more instructive than dramatically compelling. But its contemporary resonance is undeniable, and it could spark art-house interest in select markets.
Even as they leave little room for nuance, Qurbani and cowriter Martin Behnke lay out a convincing scenario that shows how their central character, angsty 17-year-old Stefan (Jonas Nay), becomes an inciter of potentially murderous mayhem. Like his timorous politician father, Martin (Devid Striesow), Stefan starts out noncommittal. Asked by a former classmate whether he’s right-wing or left-wing, he can only manage a resentful “I’m normal.” More than the rest of the cast, the two actors offer well-observed subtleties even when the screenplay traffics in the obvious.
The kids with whom Stefan’s wasting away his summer are broadly drawn types, led by a slightly older blowhard who might describe himself as a neo-Nazi, and who’s played with persuasive menace by David Schuetter. But if these kids, unemployed and hopeless in the East’s post-unification economic decline, can be said to subscribe to any philosophy, it’s an exceedingly stupid brand of nihilism. A sensitive friend’s suicide inspires no apparent emotional response except in the mostly inarticulate Stefan, while the imbalanced and thoroughly unlikable Robbie (Joel Basman, overplaying) conflates violence with sexual excitement in flagrant ways that nobody around him seems to notice.
Shifting their animus from the Romanis to the city’s Vietnamese asylum seekers, Rostock residents turn anti-immigrant protests and taunts into a form of social theater. While Martin is ineffectual in his attempts to cool the town’s rising emotional temperature, Stefan and his increasingly out-of-control friends find purpose at the tinderbox gatherings. Title cards announce the time at various points in the story, but the intended ticking-clock approach produces little suspense or tension; the same goes for the jittery score by Matthias Sayer and Tim Stroble.
Qurbani, the German-born son of Afghan refugees, does, however, build a sense of sympathy in the third main story strand, which involves Lien (Trang Le Hong), a worker in an industrial laundry. Despite the racism she faces on a daily basis, and even amid the rising violence, Lien is eager to become a German citizen, whereas her brother (Aaron Le) wants nothing more than to return to Vietnam with his pregnant wife (Mai Duong Kieu). Along with 150 other refugees, they become sitting targets in the hulking Soviet-era apartment block where they live.
Cinematographer Yoshi Heimrath’s striking images of the building emphasize scale and historical context. His lensing can be potent, as when the gathering threatens to turn into an all-out riot and his camera roves among the antsy crowds, the cops lined up for battle and the news media assembled nearby. Elsewhere, though, his shifting angles can be more intrusive than helpful.
Most puzzling is the filmmakers’ decision to use black-and-white, however handsome it looks. When, late in the proceedings, the movie switches to color, it’s yet another distracting stylistic choice, further distancing the viewer from the onscreen events. That disconnect between self-conscious visual scheme and the drama at hand reflects a deeper problem with We Are Young. Qurbani’s film is, on the most basic level, a revelatory glimpse of recent history with a strong sense of the sociopolitical setting. He gets the dangerous plasticity of alienated youth. But in many ways it feels as if the director is still trying to find his way into the story.
Production companies: UFA Fiction Ludwigsburg, ZDF, Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, Arte/Mainz Cine Plus, UFA Cinema
Cast: Jonas Nay, Trang Le Hong, Saskia Rosendahl, Joel Basman, Devid Striesow, David Schuetter, Paul Gabler, Larissa Fuchs, Aaron Le, Mai Duong Kieu, Thorsten Merten
Director: Burhan Qurbani
Screenwriters: Martin Behnke, Burhan Qurbani
Producers: Jochen Laube, Leif Alexis
Director of photography: Yoshi Heimrath
Production designer: Jill Schwarzer
Costume designer: Juliane Maier
Editor: Julia Karg
Composers: Matthias Sayer, Tim Stroble
Casting: Nina Haun, Jacqueline Rietz, Thuy Trang Nguyen
World sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 123 minutes
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