Age of Cannibals (Zeit der Kannibalen): Berlin Review

Studio.TV.Film, WDR, Arte, BR
Three business consultants are a train wreck waiting to happen in this drama-cum-satire.

The second feature of German director Johannes Naber ("The Albanian") stars Sebastian Blomberg, Devid Striesow and Katharina Schuettler as ruthless business consultants.

BERLIN -- Two ruthless business consultants hoping for a promotion get stuck with a feisty female colleague instead in Age of Cannibals (Zeit der Kannibalen), German gaffer-turned-director Johannes Naber’s sophomore feature that’s entirely set in a series of hotel rooms and convincingly slides from high-stakes drama into wry satire.

Almost the polar opposite of his first feature as a director, the socio-realist immigrant drama The Albanian, the theatrically staged Age of Cannibals is a film with zero pretense of realism, set exclusively in a series of studio-constructed, five-star hotel rooms whose exact exotic locations are revealed only through the looks of the hotel personnel and geography references in the dialog. The company the leads work for is only ever referred to as “the company,” and it’s exactly this lack of specific details and overt theatricality that allows the viewers to concentrate on the extremely diseased system that the characters stand for and are a part of.

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Laced with increasingly desperate but also very marketable humor, and headed by local name actors Sebastian Blomberg and Devid Striesow, this should be a solid arthouse earner when it opens locally April 24. Offshore, festivals and a handful of adventurous distributors will want to invest in this title.

The film opens in India, though the view from the hotel-room windows where all of the action is set over the entire film never changes, with the skyline consisting of generic gray blocks that look like they were imported from a theater or opera production. Kai Niederlaender (Blomberg) and Frank Oellers (Striesow) are colleagues and have been working together as a team for several years. They fly from developing nation to developing nation to advise companies on how to maximize their profits at any cost -- political, human or cultural considerations be damned.

The director, screenwriter Stefan Weigl and the actors make it clear from the beginning that the two are so good because they keep each other on their toes and because there’s a healthy element of rivalry that, when harnessed correctly, makes both better. Both are also constantly abroad alone and have no interest in sightseeing, so they often hang out together even after work, in the hotel bar. On paper they’re the picture of efficiency and success, though it slowly becomes clear that both men are ruthlessly ambitious and have personal problems.

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When a close (but unseen) colleague of theirs, Herlinger, is made partner instead of either of them, their metaphorical hangover is huge and it’s augmented by the fact Herlinger’s replacement turns out to be Bianca Maerz (Katharina Schuettler), a woman with a serious pair of cojones who’s not afraid to call them on their bullshit, be it sexist or otherwise. In short, she’s just as competitive as her male colleagues, whose behavior -- such as the fact the married Frank frequently slips the hotel maids some money in exchange for sexual gratification -- might fly between men but looks absolutely terrible when seen from another angle.

What thus emerges is an incredibly damning portrait of corporate behavior that robs all three characters of their humanity and reduces them to animals taking part in a rat race, with their eyes only on the money and zero interest in what goes in the real world (they never leaves the confines of their hotels in Asia and Africa, though Bianca, still the most grounded of the three, does read the occasional guidebook to know what she’s missing).

The characters’ increasingly obvious cynicism is both hilarious and frightful, until a corporate take-over sends the narrative and characters into a tailspin that goes from bad to worse -- and then even worse. Naber and Weigl don’t quite manage to say anything new or revelatory about corporate greed or the dehumanizing effects of a business world that’s only obsessed with profit but their chamber drama convinces because the narrative is clearly headed for train-wreck territory for the characters, which exerts a fascination in and of itself, and also because the actors are all in perfect form, offering just enough of a hint of humanity to suggest how deleterious their work and way of thinking is for the human soul.

Tim Pannen’s production design and Julia Maier’s costumes are both key in establishing the unusual but entirely coherent tone, which highlights the impersonal side of business people at business hotels and which, though clearly not documentary material, never becomes simply filmed theater thanks to the varied camerawork of cinematographer Pascal Schmit. The dissonant score from Cornelius Schwer constantly up the mounting unease.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Perspektive Deutsches Kino)

Production companies: Studio.TV.Film, WDR, Arte, BR
Cast: Sebastian Blomberg, Devid Striesow, Katharina Schuettler, Romesh Ranganthan, Steve Ellery, Jaymes Butler, Warsame Guled, Florence Kasumba, Joana Adu-Gyamfi, Veronica Naujocks
Director: Johannes Naber
Screenwriter: Stefan Weigl
Producer: Milena Maitz
Co-producers: Andrea Hanke, Georg Steinert, Cornelius Conrad
Director of photography: Pascal Schmit
Production designer: Tim Pannen
Music: Cornelius Schwer
Costume designer: Julia Maier
Editor: Ben von Grafenstein
No rating, 93 minutes.