'Bright Nights' ('Helle Nacht'): Film Review | Berlin 2017

Helle Nachte (Bright Nights) -Still 1 -H 2017
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
B-roll from the vacation from hell.

German director Thomas Arslan ('Gold') returns to the Berlinale competition with this father-son drama set in Norway.

An emotionally closed-off German father and his sullen teenage son traipse about northern Norway in Bright Nights (Helle Nachte), a film in which the near-barren landscapes are not quite as empty as the characters. This is director Thomas Arslan’s follow-up to his Bratwurst Western Gold, which played in competition in Berlin in 2013, though at least that film had some genre elements it could tip its hat to; here it's just a long trudge to nowhere with a mulish refusal to explain anything or let any soupcon of narrative, character development or backstory spoil the pristine landscapes.

Arslan’s films have never really penetrated the international market and that’s unlikely to change with this wan effort, though local fans of second-tier Berlin School works might possibly mistake its — at least very committed — emptiness for profundity.

There’s an enormous gulf between captivating, not clearly explained unease or apprehension — a hallmark of the best Berlin School films, such as those from Christian Petzold (Barbara, Phoenix) — and a flat-out refusal to give the viewers anything to work with, which is what happens here. The first 83 minutes of this 86-minute feature feel like an endlessly protracted setup, followed by a hasty and entirely predictable conclusion that’s dramatically underpowered and entirely unearned (spoiler alert: it involves a page from the Toni Erdmann book of token rapprochement between parent and offspring). The film has no narrative midsection because there is no character development; the central relationship remains entirely static until the final scene, with an epilogue suggesting that even that might not have changed anything at all.

Michael (Austrian actor Georg Friedrich) isn’t particularly nice to his sister on the phone when he tells her their distant — literally as well as figuratively — father died, or to his girlfriend when she announces she’s had the job offer of the century, which involves her moving abroad. He’s perhaps not intentionally misanthropic but he seems entirely closed-off from the handful of people still talking to him. Indeed, since his mood seems to oscillate between general indifference and mild hostility, it’s a miracle some people still do.

For an inexplicable reason — probably because otherwise there wouldn’t be any movie — he takes it upon himself to travel to Norway, where his father lived and died, to deal with his funeral and with sorting out his things at home. For an even more inexplicable reason, Michael’s surly son Luis (Tristan Gobel) comes along, even though the latter has grown up with his mom and her new boyfriend in the countryside and he hasn’t seen Dad for ages. The one thing that convinces about their rapport is that they are clearly related, as the son’s mood is never any healthier, more inquisitive or sunnier than his father’s.

In a more conventional film, the near-silent duo would slowly reacquaint themselves with each other over the course of their summer trip (hence the title) through the Troms region in northern Norway. But Arslan has scrubbed the film of any cheap sentiment or indeed any kind of narrative or character development at all, with father and son simply driving around, setting up their tiny tent here and there and never really talking about anything. And after they leave Grandpa’s home, he’s never mentioned again (he would seem like a logical topic of conversation in a film about difficult father-son relationships). Shots of winding roads in increasingly wild surrounding abound and there’s a stop at a certain point so father and son can admire a burning cabin in the middle of nowhere. No doubt, these images are meant to suggest something about their relationship or the inner state of the characters. Or maybe they are just there to avoid turning this feature into a short film?

There are a few moments when some kind of narrative seems to develop, like when Luis runs into a local Goth chick (Hanna Karlberg) his age at a campsite or a group of youngsters park their van at the same lake as father and son and start to party very loudly right next to their tent. But none of these scenes goes anywhere or has any kind of payoff; it almost feels like someone is taking a perverse kind of pleasure in stringing together all of the entirely uninteresting B-roll of the duo’s holiday footage.

Gobel (Tschick) and Friedrich (Aloys) can’t do much but look at each other apathetically while reciting their few lines of meaningless dialogue. They are very convincing and lifelike for sure, but the problem is that they are also some of the most uninteresting people to have populated the big screen in a long time. It is impossible for audiences to care about them or their non-relationship, because there is never any sense of what they are thinking, what they really want or why they are acting the way they do. Even the vaguest pronounced hint of Dad wanting to reconcile with his son would’ve helped, but viewers can only guess this is the case because Luis has been sent on vacation with his father.   

Shot in majestic widescreen by Reinhold Vorschneider, who also shot Arslan’s In the Shadows, the film at least looks like it belongs on the big screen.  

Production companies: Schramm Film Koerner & Weber, Mer Film, Film Camp, WDR
Cast: Georg Friedrich, Tristan Gobel, Marie Leuenberger, Hanna Karlberg
Writer-director: Thomas Arslan
Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber
Director of photography: Reinhold Vorschneider
Production designer: Reinhild Blaschke
Costume designer: Anette Guther
Editor: Reinaldo Pinto Almeida
Music: Ola Flottum
Casting: Ulrike Muller, Nina Erdahl
Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 86 minutes