'Deadweight': Berlin Review

Deadweight still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Alexander Gheorghiu
Audacious debutant steers his vessel into challenging artistic waters.

Axel Koenzen's oceangoing debut feature, a Finnish-German co-production, premiered in the Forum sidebar at the German festival.

Latest in a welcome flurry of oceangoing pictures that plunge viewers into the hard-knock realities of nautical life, Axel Koenzen's enigmatically elliptical debut Deadweight positions itself at the more challenging end of the cinematic spectrum. Taking its tenor from an inscrutable lead performance by Tommi Korpela as the taciturn, grizzled and broodingly morose captain of a troubled container-vessel, it's strong on realism but deliberately uninvolving in terms of plot. The vibrant presence of French art-film queen Jeanne Balibar — in a small but crucial supporting role — will boost chances of further festival berths, but this is essentially an uncompromising, finely-etched calling card for Koenzen.

Bearing a notable and surely non-coincidental resemblance to Jurgen Prochnow, the submarine commander from Wolfgang Petersen's seminal Das Boot, Korpela's Captain Ikonen is first seen mooching around Rotterdam's waterfront before making a low-key return to his ship. The craft sets sail for Savannah, Georgia, but little of the journey is glimpsed and the American port is spoken of but never actually shown — typical of a picture which takes a pedantic interest in the minutiae of working environments but then will skip over crucial plot developments. Primary among these is the offscreen death of a Filipino loading-hand, James (Manuelito Acido) -— officially a suicide, most probably an accident, but just possibly something more sinister. 

James’ demise, during a loading operation conducted beyond strict union rules, spells potentially big trouble for all concerned — especially Ikonen and his second officer Martinescu (Ema Vetean). The impact on the captain is gradual, but guilt eventually takes its toll even on this notably tough, impassive customer. Koenzen and his two credited co-writers never really try to get too far under Ikonen´s stubbled, pockmarked skin, however. And a further element of distancing results from what appears to be post-dubbing of his English-language dialogue — most of it delivered with face turned slightly away from cinematographer Alexander Gheorghiu's probing, restlessly handheld camera.

Editor Benjamin Mirguet, who cut Carlos Reygadas’ Battle In Heaven more than a decade ago, chops up proceedings into discrete sections, punctuated by stark blackouts. This jarring approach serves its purpose of keeping us slightly on our guard and at a certain remove from the characters and their situations. Several documentary-style sequences of working environments exert a reliably gritty authenticity. Koenzen’s fondness for protractions and longueurs, meanwhile, steers away from obvious recent festival-circuit antecedents such as Frederick Pelletier´s worker-oriented Diego Star and Lucie Borleteau's relatively conventional Fidelio: Alice's Journey towards to the durational abstractions of Mauro Herce’s Locarno-lauded non-fictioner Dead Slow Ahead.

Venue: Berlin international Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Rohfilm, Bufo

Cast: Tommi Korpela, Ema Vetean, Manuelito Acido, Archie Alemania, Jeanne Balibar, Frank Lammers
Director: Axel Koenzen
Screenwriters: Axel Koenzen, Boris Doran, Horst Markgraf
Producers: Benny Drechsel, Karsten Stoeter, Mark Lwoff, Misha Jaari
Cinematographer: Alexander Gheorghiu
Production designer: Diana Van De Vossenberg
Costume designers: Chiara Minchio, Michael Kleine
Editor: Benjamin Mirguet
Composer: Pessi Levanto
Casting: Tanja Schuh
Sales: Rohfilm, Leipzig

Not rated, 88 minutes