'Label Me': Film Review | Outfest 2019

Courtesy of Outfest Los Angeles
A distinctive queer spin on the immigrant narrative.

Debuting director Kai Kreuser measures the incremental emotional thaw in a transactional exchange between a gay-for-pay Syrian hustler and his affluent German regular.

A soulfully melancholy reflection on the extreme isolation of the refugee experience amplified by the internalized homophobia entrenched in Arab cultures, Label Me is a sexy, atmospheric mood piece that marks German writer-director Kai Kreuser as a talent to watch. Largely a two-hander, the drama is acted with sensitivity by Renato Schuch and Nikolaus Benda, frequently performing against a coolly alienating backdrop of Cologne at night. While the hour-long format limits commercial prospects, this accomplished film school thesis work should score further queer festival programming and perhaps some streaming exposure.

Bearded, brooding Waseem (Schuch) is first glimpsed on a subway platform, his phone buzzing as a hookup app indicates the interest of Lars (Benda), a well-heeled German who takes the Syrian immigrant back to his stylishly minimalist converted loft space and matter-of-factly negotiates what the stranger will and won't do sexually for cash. Giving off zero warmth, Waseem informs him that kissing is off the table, as is passive penetration, but Lars is relaxed and adaptable, immediately intrigued enough to want to see him again.

Their repeat encounters — conducted in English, given that Waseem speaks no German — are punctuated by scenes at the communal refugee shelter where Waseem lives on the city's outskirts, often with pensive shots of him showering as the water invariably runs cold. He keeps a cagey distance from other residents there, including one who openly cruises him from the dorm-room bed opposite his. Waseem later walks in on the same man being physically brutalized by homophobic bullies, but he steps away and says nothing, leaving the German shelter staff to intervene.

When Waseem responds to Lars' curiosity about him with chilly silence, the German playfully extends the transactional nature of their relationship by paying him 20 Euros for every question he answers. This leads to Lars sharing elements of his own history, and the first, tentative signs of a connection between them. When Lars has to dash out to deal with a work situation mid-assignation, he leaves Waseem alone in his apartment and the Syrian promptly stashes valuables in a bag, intending to rob him. But when the German returns home hours later, Waseem casually informs him he changed his mind: "You're lucky. It takes me more effort to sell it than fucking you."

Part of what prompts Waseem to stay and drop the robbery plan is the discovery of Lars' sketchbooks, in which he finds a portrait of himself among the male nudes. The subtext of him being seen and not just commodified or remaining invisible is quietly affecting.

Kreuser is almost as frugal with information about Lars as he is about Waseem — we never learn what the German does for a living, for instance, or why he seemingly has no friends or family. But the portrait of two solitary lives intersecting is insightfully observed and compelling, especially once the cracks of vulnerability start appearing in Waseem's stern façade and something approaching trust begins factoring into their intimacy.

While Waseem claims to indulge in gay sex purely to make a living, the clues about his internal conflicts are put in place long before he melts into a kiss with Lars and then reacts with panicked aggression and vicious slurs. In one of the film's best scenes, Lars finds him hanging out near a gay bathhouse and convinces him to accompany him inside. But Waseem seems deeply unsettled by the open displays of cruising and sex among the customers. Lars insists on driving him home afterwards, their banter in the car finally resembling an unguarded two-way conversation.

Kreuser sets up an ugly outcome by driving a wedge between his protagonists and then raising the threat of violence at the shelter, as the protective wall Waseem builds around himself compounds his isolation. But while the film does take dark turns, it maintains a through-line of hope and possibility, without selling out in a forced happy ending or magically erasing the obstacles standing in the way of Waseem's self-acceptance. The final image is lovely, exemplifying the crisp economy of this evocatively shot and persuasively acted character study, a solid calling card for its actors as well as its writer-director.

Production company: International Film School Cologne
Cast: Renato Schuch, Nikolaus Benda, Lea Fleck, Giole Viola, Georg Paluza, Timur Ulker, Cem Aydin, Christoph Wielinger, Damon Zolfaghari, Emanuel Weber, Thomas Balou Martin, Jogi Kaiser
Director-screenwriter: Kai Kreuser

Producers: Jenny Lorenz-Kreindl, Sonja Kessler
Director of photography: Malte Hafner
Production designer: Bohdan Adam Wozniak
Costume designer: Svena Mannshausen
Music: Max Kelm
Editor: Tabea Hannappel
Casting: Kristin Diehle, Sophie Molitoris
Venue: Outfest Los Angeles

In English, German and Arabic
60 minutes