BERLIN — The tranquil life of a motorbike repairman in rural Germany is rudely upset by an unexpected visitor who literally hits too close to home in Stereo, the second feature of German director Maximilian Erlenwein.
The first rule of good filmmaking is to make sure everything looks and sounds good and in that department, Stereo passes with flying colors, with its eye-catching, roving camerawork and electro-infused soundtrack. Add to that the high-profile cast: Beefy German actor Juergen Vogel (the teacher from The Wave) plays the Everyman lead and star Moritz Bleibtreu (The Fifth Estate, World War Z) has been cast as a mysterious figure who comes knocking on the garage door and simply refuses to leave. All these elements should make this Berlin Panorama title a relatively easy sell in German-language areas, though the story’s quite derivative and, in the third act, the plotting too labyrinthine to really make much of a mark abroad.
Eric (Vogel) leads an apparently happy life, working on motorcycles in his workshop and getting both love and hot sex from his girlfriend, Julia (Petra Schmidt-Schaller). He also gets along swimmingly with Julia’s adorable little daughter, Linda (Helena Schoenfelder), though the first meeting with his prospective father-in-law (Rainer Bock) is awkward, as Eric’s speeding on his motorcycle and subsequently boasts to the cop that pulls him over how his girlfriend likes him all smelly and greasy — only to find out later that the policeman’s actually Julia’s father.
But that turns out to be the least of the protagonist’s worries, as his seemingly idyllic country life starts to unravel when enigmatic figures start to enter Eric’s field of vision. Initially they hover around the edges of the widescreen canvas but they gradually move closer, until they are inside his workshop. Erlenwein, with the help of ace cinematographer Ngo The Chau, who also shot the director’s 2009 feature debut, Gravity, is an expert at using composition and camera movement to quickly establish what a locale looks like before proceeding to introduce slightly troubling things on the horizon that immediately feel out of place.
One of the people that appears is a mean-faced heavy, Gaspar (Mark Zak), and he’s accompanied by an initially silent sidekick, a hooded figure who’ll later reveal his name is Henry (Bleibtreu). It’s finally Henry who Erik can’t seem to shake, though others around him don’t even seem to see the mysterious figure, so Erik consults a doctor and then a specialized healer who works with needles to try and solve the enigma.
It’s an interesting idea to reveal this Fight Club-like twist of sorts early on in the proceedings and Erik has confessed to Julia he sees someone no one else does even before the halfway mark (her well-meant but somewhat laconic sounding reply: “I’m real”). Henry, who starts to reason with Eric, initially appearing to be a kind of manifestation of Erik’s unexpressed commitment phobia, as he’s about to move in with Julia and Linda, a step this tough guy might not be entirely ready to make.
But the screenplay, written by the director, seems unsure where to take matters from here, so Erlenwein opts for a series of narrative false bottoms as the action moves to a big-city night club owned by a hair-raising underworld figure (Georg Friedrich) with whom Erik apparently has unfinished business. Unsurprisingly, the result is of an extremely violent nature, stunningly staged and shot but with the audience’s emotional attachment to the characters lost in a labyrinth of hard-to-follow plot twists.
It’s a shame, as the first half seems to suggest Erlenwein has a knack for character development, he’s good with actors and he finds small details that enrich his main story, such as the fact little Linda declares her invisible friend dead when she hears Erik has a much cooler one.
The slick technical package is impressive from top to bottom, with the director using the sunny summer days in the countryside as an effective counterbalance to the troubled darkness inside Erik himself.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production companies: Frisbeefilms, Kaissar Film Produktion, ZDF, Wild Bunch Germany, Arte
Cast: Juergen Vogel, Moritz Bleibtreu, Petra Schmidt-Schaller, Georg Friedrich, Rainer Bock, Mark Zak
Writer-Director: Maximilian Erlenwein
Producers: Alexander Bickenbach, Maniel Bickenbach, Khaled Kaissar
Co-producers: Marc Gabizon, Amelie Kienlin
Director of photography: Ngo The Chau
Production designer: Heike Lange
Music: Enis Rotthoff
Costume designer: Maria Schicker
Editor: Sven Budelmann
Sales: Beta Cinema
No rating, 97 minutes.