'As We Were Dreaming' ('Als Wir Traeumten'): Berlin Review

Als Wir Traumten
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A period movie that plays like a bathroom read

Andreas Dresen's adaptation of Clemens Meyer's novel about a group of East German friends right after the fall of the Wall stars Merlin Rose, Joel Basman and Julius Nitschkoff

A group of aimless youngsters tries to get through life in Leipzig, former East Germany, just after the Wall has come down in the feature As We Were Dreaming (Als Wir Traeumten). Based on a bestselling novel by Clemens Meyer, this adaptation by German director Andreas Dresen, whose Stopped on Track won the Cannes Un Certain Regard prize in 2011, looks slick and is well-acted by a small cast of fresh faces but never comes together as a narrative, feeling just as disjointed and directionless as the people it portrays. Beyond countries where the book is a known quantity, this will prove an extremely hard sell.

Dresen’s filmography contains two types of films: semi-improvised, almost documentary-like slice-of-life dramas such as Track and Cloud 9, another Cannes premiere, and properly scripted fare often written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who wrote Dresen’s Summer in Berlin, Whiskey With Wodka and also this Meyer adaptation. Unfortunately, Kohlhaase’s screenplays are rarely as strong as the features Dresen makes using his Mike Leigh-like methods to come up with a story with a group of actors (there are no proper scripts), and more often than not the result, like here, feels like a film made for hire rather than project into which the director has poured his heart and soul.

As We Were Dreaming goes back and forth between the Polaroid-tinted times before the reunification of Germany, when the film’s 13-year-old protagonists attended a Socialist school, and the washed-out bleakness of the early 1990s, when they try to come of age in a country they don’t necessarily recognize and they fall prey to drugs, gang violence and, more often than not, their own adolescent stupidity.

Dani (Merlin Rose, Wetlands) is the unofficial leader -- by virtue of having a voice-over more than demonstrated leadership skills -- of a group that also includes Mark (Swiss actor Joel Basman, Monuments Men), who has trouble staying off drugs; Rico (Julius Nitschkoff), who dreams of becoming a boxer; Pitbull (Marcel Heuperman), who becomes a drugs dealer and the ungainly bespectacled "Porno Paul" (Frederic Haselon), who becomes sexually frustrated after an encounter with an Asian woman from West-Germany who seems to like him but who doesn't want to put out (all of the women are strictly seen from an extremely narrow male point-of-view, which means that a potential personality is the least interesting thing about them). 

The boys' school days offer little insight into who they are or will become as people, apart from suggesting their boys-will-be-boys rebellious streak, which grows into a major problem when they’re on the brink of adulthood and they start to steal cars and hang out with an old lady so they can steal her money and belongings (the fact they only steal stuff in small doses doesn’t make it any better; if anything it makes it worse because they think it’s not that bad if you just steal a little bit). The acne-covered crew’s one successful project, setting up an underground club in an abandoned building, becomes a magnet for trouble when a group of neo-Nazis, led by Kehman (Gerdy Zint), decides the place should really be theirs so they can dominate the drug trade there. And of course Dani falls in love with a preposterously named cliché of a girl, Starlet (Ruby O. Fee, who played a younger Eva Green in Womb), who hangs out with the rival gang but who likes the sensitive Dani -- frequently the object of the neo-Nazis’ wrath and sticks and stones -- enough to give him something for his eyes only: she’ll squat and pee and he can watch.

Somewhat oddly, the film is rarely overtly political -- much to its detriment, especially for foreign audiences who won’t be able to pick up on some of the nuances -- but this act of semi-public tinkling (never seen but sounding like the Iguazu Falls in the thunderous sound mix) might be the film’s clearest proof that the country’s unification was capable of messing people up real bad. But otherwise there’s rarely a sense of how the lives of the young men have been directly impacted by all the changes between the past and their 1990s present and how they might feel about that. This is something of a surprise, as Dresen, himself born in East Germany, not far from Leipzig where this is set, seems like the ideal person to address these kinds of issues.  

The infrequent and not particularly illuminating voice-over and the decision to add splashy chapter headings of sorts onscreen ("Murder in Germany," "Rivalry," etc.) only underline how unstructured the underlying material is, with the narrative constantly dominated by incident -- and then this happened, and then that happened -- and never character, which is a problem because character growth is the cement between incidents that gives what happens to the characters meaning. Lacking that, they just represent a boring enumeration of things that occurred one after the other. Indeed, despite spending two hours with these young men, viewers will have little sense of how their lives evolved and changed after the fall of the Wall (not having read the novel, it’s hard to judge, but going by what’s onscreen it would seem to make for a great bathroom read, as the story’s entirely episodic and static in nature and can be dipped in and out of at any random point at will).

As in his other features, Dresen manages to at least coax convincingly naturalistic performances out of his cast (incidentally, all of them born in the 1990s), though none of the youngsters here can overcome their characters’ lack of either development or redeeming qualities. Dresen’s regular cutter, Joerg Hauschid, struggles to balance the need to follow all the different characters simultaneously, with members of the core group fading into the background too frequently and for too long. Some instances of conspicuous cross-cutting -- such as between a boxing match Rico watches on TV and a match in which he’s actually a contestant -- also yield little to no apparent benefit.  

At least, some unexpected instances of humor make the general dreariness of the narrative sort of bearable, while the period recreation is convincing in an unfussy way. After the film's over, it might be clear what happened while the kids were dreaming but it's never clear what they were dreaming about. 

Production companies: Rommel Film, Iskremas Filmpro

Cast: Merlin Rose, Julius Nitschkoff, Marcel Heuperman, Joel Basman, Frederic Haselon, Ruby O. Fee, Chiron Elias Krase , Luna Roesner, Tom von Heymann, Nico Ramon Kleemann

Director: Andreas Dresen

Screenplay: Wolfgang Kohlhaase, based on the novel by Clemens Meyer

Producer: Peter Rommel

Co-producers: Andreas Dresen, Andreas Leusink, Tom Dercourt

Director of photography: Michael Hammon

Production designer: Susanne Hopf

Costume designer: Sabine Greunig

Editor: Joerg Hauschild

Casting: Doris Borkmann

Sales: The Match Factory


No rating, 117 minutes