'The Bunker' ('Der Bunker'): Berlin Review

Der Bunker
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
The best German-language movie featuring a talking leg, ever

German-born director Nikias Chryssos's feature debut casts Pit Bukowksi as an unsuspecting lodger at the titular location

Twisted and trashy in equal measure, The Bunker (Der Bunker) is the eccentric and idiosyncratic first feature from Greek-German director Nikias Chryssos. A dark fairy tale of sorts with everything from darkly throbbing Lynchian undercurrents, outré touches of scifi and more than a soupcon of camp a la John Waters, this cheerful B-movie recounts the misadventures of a lodger in the titular Spartan dwelling who’s forced to take on the education of the family’s perennial 8-year-old, who thinks he’s being groomed for the U.S. presidency. Too out-there for regular distribution in anything but German-speaking Mitteleuropa (and even there this will be an extremely niche title), this has midnight cult title written all over it -- in clumsy schoolboy handwriting, of course.

Deep within a snow-covered forest, a strapping young blond (Pit Bukowski, also in Berlin competition title As We Were Dreaming) arrives at a bunker where he’s rented a room. Though the advertised lake-view is non-existent, since the extremely basic room’s actually underground, the man, only referred to as "Student," decides to stay anyway. The family that lives there, composed of mom (Oona von Maydell), dad (David Scheller) and their supposedly 8-year-old son, Klaus (Daniel Fripan, born in 1984 and also in Berlin competition film Victoria), is an odd bunch to say the least. This becomes abundantly clear when Student’s forced to take over the homeschooling of Klaus at the insistence of Heinrich, the opinionated alien overlord who lives inside mom’s voluptuously swollen leg (yes, really).

Even as the film jolts from one surprise to the next, Chryssos impresses with his steady command of especially the mise-en-scene, as he’s always clearly aware where to put the camera so he can get the most out of each shot. And the way in which he and editor Carsten Eder rely on cuts to heighten the drama and amplify the many chuckle-inducing instances of comedy or general weirdness also feels self-assured throughout.

Like in last year’s Berlin Perspektive Deutsches Kino film The Samurai, which also starred Bukowski, this gleefully anarchic and colorfully acted and assembled feature feels like a pointedly anti-Berlin School movie, trading in the spare austerity and downbeat realism of the most popular current strand of German arthouse films for a kind of storytelling that tries -- and here, succeeds -- to forge something new from countless familiar B-film tropes and other exotic (for German-language cinema) influences. Melanie Raab’s production design and Henrike Naumann’s costumes are clear visual markers of the film’s jumble of inspirations and could generally be described as retro chic, while Leonard Petersen’s ambient score perfectly complements the film’s rich soundscape.

Though the story’s anything but realistic, this doesn’t mean that it has nothing to say; Chryssos’s well-paced screenplay suggests something, for example, about the dangers of burdening a child with unrealistic expectations, such as the parents’ insistence on Klaus’s preparation for his future in the White House (the fact he’s a German citizen is the least of this kid’s problems, as Klaus can’t even remember the capitals of Belgium and France). The fact everyone keeps pretending 30-year-old-looking Klaus is a preteen that mom still needs to breastfeed might at first register as simply another absurd occurrence, though in reality it’s a clever literal manifestation of the idea that the parents don’t want their baby to grow up because that would mean that he'd leave them to their own miserable lives and without a common project, an idea that plays right into the film’s perfect ending.

Production companies: Kataskop Film, Geissendoerfer Film- und Fernsehproduktion

Cast: Pit Bukowski, Daniel Fripan, Oona von Maydell, David Scheller

Writer-Director: Nikias Chryssos

Producer: Nikias Chryssos

Co-producers: Hans W. Geissendoerfer, Hana Geissendoerfer

Director of photography: Matthias Reiser

Production designer: Melanie Raab

Costume designer: Henrike Naumann

Editor: Carsten Eder

Music: Leonard Petersen


No rating, 85 minutes