Initiation -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

VIENNA -- Cult Viennese writer/director Peter Kern takes a tentative step towards the mainstream with "Initiation" ("Blutsfreundschaft"), an uneven drama toplined by a nuanced performance from Euro art-house legend Helmut Berger. Occasional flashes of imagination and inspiration hint at why Kern has a passionate following among certain coteries of adventurous cinephiles, but there's little here to win new recruits to his cause. Recalling Bryan Singer's "Apt Pupil" and Shane Meadows' "This Is England," "Initiation" is pretty conventional fare, with only limited appeal festivals-wise outside gay-themed events.

Now a jowly 65, Berger's long, globetrotting career ranges from award-winning collaborations with Luchino Visconti ("The Damned," "Ludwig") to a brief spell in '80s uber-soap "Dynasty." The Austrian star's lived-in features and air of world-weary sophistication make him ideal casting as Vienna dry-cleaner Gustav even though he's really too young for the part.

A discreet regular in the city's gently decadent gay bars, Gustav has never quite gotten over an intense, ill-fated teenage romance during wartime, when both he and his beloved were unwilling members of the Nazi youth-wing. Over half a century later, Gustav's painful memories are rekindled when he crosses paths with Axel (Harry Lampl), a hot-headed young lad who's on the fringes of the city's violent neo-fascist scene. Axel is thus caught between the world of racist "rowdies" and his flinty friendship with a chap such thugs would regard as Public Enemy Number One.

It's a credibility-stretching premise, and much credit must go to Berger and Lampl for convincingly rendering the contours of Gustav and Axel's relationship -- more a case of sly, avuncular mind-games than direct physical intimacy. Kern is strong at bringing to life the comradely nocturnal milieu, slightly hallucinatory scenes that nod to similarly louche environments from the 1970s masterworks of his sometime collaborator, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

But Kern lacks Fassbinder's sure-footed control of tone -- the alternation between comic and dramatic registers is sometimes awkward, as is the integration of wartime flashback with humdrum present-day reality. Things fall apart in a final act that culminates in a notably tensionless and unconvincing pavement stand-off between the forces of good and evil, one of numerous scenes where Kern gives the impression of being stymied by budgetary restrictions.

There's no reason why the script shouldn't have presented a wider view of the problems presented by ultra-rightists in modern-day Vienna: The skinheads in "Initiation" are a discrete, malignant cell rather than symptomatic of any general malaise in the national body-politic.

Venue: Vienna International Film Festival
Production company: Novotny & Novotny Filmproduktion
Cast: Helmut Berger, Harry Lampl, Melanie Kretschmann, Manuel Rubey, Michael Steinocher
Director/screenwriter: Peter Kern
Based on an idea by: Frank Maria Reifenberg
Producer: Franz Novotny
Executive producer: Alexander Glehr
Director of photography: Peter Rohsler
Production designer: Hannes Salat
Music: Boris Fiala, Andreas Hamza
Costume designer: Maurizio Giambra
Editor: Petra Zopnek
Sales: East West, Vienna
No rating, 93 minutes