Cracks in Concrete (Risse im Beton): Berlin Review

Murathan Muslu's nuanced performance elevates this largely familiar story with a somewhat messy beginning.

Kurdish-Austrian director Umut Dag's second feature stars his regular actor, Murathan Muslu, as a father who tries to connect with his 15-year-old son after a ten-year stint in jail.

BERLIN -- An immigrant father in Austria who’s on parole after a decade-long jail sentence secretly insinuates himself into the life of his teenage son in Cracks in Concrete (Risse im Beton), the second feature of Kurdish-Austrian director Umut Dag.

Dag’s first film, Kuma, which opened the Berlinale Panorama in 2012, was a female-driven story set almost entirely indoors and Concrete, which is a male-dominated tale set mostly on the wintry mean streets of Vienna, is quite different from its predecessor, even though the film features an otherwise largely familiar line-up of elements that include rap music dreams, drugs, debts and a helluva lot of dumb decisions. The feature again takes its time to find its footing though about an hour in the themes and characters finally crystallize and by the time the finale rolls around Dag manages to turn a quiet closing scene into a very powerful moment.

The film should attract attention in German-language territories, since most of the dialog is in German (indeed, the exact origins of all the immigrant characters go entirely unmentioned), but elsewhere this’ll be a harder sell that’s more likely headed for TV and VOD than theatrical sales.

When brooding macho man Ertan (Murathan Muslu, from Kuma and Dag’s award-winning short, Papa) is released from the slammer, the first thing he does is look for Mikail (Alechan Tagaev), his now 15-year-old son. His offspring has no recollection of what Ertan looks like, since he left Mikail’s mother even before being jailed for manslaughter and drug possession ten years earlier.

Ertan manages to find a construction job at a Vienna youth center, which is being refurbished and where Mikail likes to hang out in the basement, where he works on a demo tape of rap songs that he hopes will make him rich and famous. To finance his dreams, Mikail sells weed at a popular club but when he’s not making enough to meet an important deadline, he switches to selling heavier drugs, which sets him up for a conflict with the club owners, who tolerate the presence of hashish but don’t want to be associated with pills.

The screenplay, written by Kuma’s Petra Ladinigg, has some of the same structural issues as Dag’s first film, with the initial reel or two quite disorienting and the relationships between the characters not immediately apparent. Mikail’s group of friends remains especially vague, as, initially, all the kids seem interchangeable; they’re all short-haired, even shorter-tempered second-generation immigrants who are into petty theft and small-time drug dealing operations but who see big things (cars, houses, boobs, musical careers...) in their future.

Cocky yet naive Mikail, or Mika, finally starts to emerge as the focal point of attention when he has to tell Yilmaz (Mehmet Ali Salman), his source for the drugs he sells, that he can’t pay him back immediately, spelling further trouble ahead. The relationship between Mikail and his father also slowly develops as the film progresses, with the kind construction worker never revealing to his son who he is but instead offering a suggestion for a rap-line here, some fatherly advice there.

If Mikail’s trajectory is a very familiar one, and Tagaev a non-professional actor who doesn’t bring all that much to the table, the film surprises in its portrayal of Ertan, which tries to better his ways but has to constantly fight his own impulses. Ladinigg and Dag give their leading man a subplot involving a former associate who suggests he come back into the trade to make a quick few bucks when things get rough, a not unfamiliar situation that’s transformed into one of the film’s strongest moments when, paradoxically but very logically, Ertan beats the man to a pulp because he doesn’t want to fall back into his old patters of violence and crime since they are exactly what he’s hoping Mika will be able to avoid. Muslu impressively suggests all the pent-up aggressiveness of the character as well as his regrets and his desire to try and avoid a fate similar to his own for his son.

It becomes clear in the closing reels that the film’s finally not about if things will go wrong but how the characters will deal with the inevitable. It’s here that Dag impresses with a hushed but heartbreaking scene in a police-station corridor in which the narrative beats are familiar but the way Muslu plays his character’s reactions ring so true it’s hard not to feel for the man.

Cinematographer Georg Geutebrueck, who also shot Papa, gives the streets of Vienna a damp and unwelcoming look, while Iva Zabkar’s score strikes a nice balance between wistful and tenser passages.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production company: WEGA Filmproduktion
Cast: Murathan Muslu, Alechan Tagaev, Ivan Kriznjak, Shamil Iliskhanov, Daniel Mijatovic, Magdalena Pawlus, Mehmet Ali Salman, Erdem Turkoglu, Martina Spitzer, Elif Dag
Director: Umut Dag
Screenwriter: Petra Ladinigg, screenplay based on a story by Ladinigg and Dag
Producers: Michael Katz, Veit Heiduschka
Director of photography: Georg Geutebrueck
Production designers: Katrin Huber, Gerhard Dohr
Music: Iva Zabkar
Costume designer: Cinzia Cioffi
Editor: Claudia Linzer
Sales: Films Boutique
No rating, 106 minutes.