'Limbo': San Sebastian Review

Limbo Still - H 2014
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Limbo Still - H 2014

Slow-burning character study pays commendably close attention to its protagonist's physical and socio-economic environment.

German-based director Anna Sofie Hartmann's debut, set and shot in her Danish home town, premiered in a competitive sidebar at the Spanish festival

The reliably productive San Sebastian section entitled and dedicated to "New Directors" has unearthed yet another promising talent in the form of Denmark's Anna Sofie Hartmann, whose Berlin film-school project Limbo transcends its blandly generic title and amply justifies its presence at a major European festival. Taking as its starting-point a level-headed high-schooler's steadily-building infatuation with her drama teacher, the picture is more concerned with scrutinizing physical and socio-economic milieux than with conventional forms of narrative development. While its austere style will undoubtedly too arch, poised and unaccommodating for some, this is a quietly audacious debut that should enjoy further exposure around the circuit and could even justify limited distribution in Hartmann's native land.

Even for Danes, the town of Nakskov (pop.12,866) on the southern, flat, largely agricultural island of Lolland is an obscure place, best known - if at all - for being the home of the country's biggest sugar factory. Throughout Limbo, Hartman and her editor Sofie Steenberger includes extended documentary sequences of the plant's noisy processes, with boxy Academy-ratio compositions that find aesthetic interest in apparently mundane industrial goings-on. We see Nakskov and its inhabitants with an anthropological detachment, Hartmann — who was born and bred here but "escaped" to study film-making in Copenhagen and Aarhus before Berlin — implicitly underlining how little there is in such a place to stimulate a bright teenager like Sara (Annika Nuka Mathiassen).

Independent and mature for her years, Sara develops romantic feelings for Karen (Sofia Nolso), who has come to Nakskov from Denmark's distant North Atlantic archipelago the Faroe Islands. Sara's way of dealing with her emotions is characteristically direct, but her bald revelation of her feelings yields disappointing results and ultimately drastic consequences. Two-thirds of the way through the film the plot takes a soberingly unexpected and startling turn — in structural terms, it strongly echoes 2010's fine Danish prison saga R (aka R: Hit First, Hit Hardest) — and the focus shifts from Sara to Karen, Hartmann continuing to pay minute attention to what might usually be regarded as minor background stuff.

Typical of her approach is a scene where Sara and friends chit-chat in a pizza-joint, the scene cutting to the kitchen where the immigrant staff prepare the food and chit-chat away in their (unsubtitled) native tongue. This stimulates the sense that life is going on beyond the margins of the frame, as well as acknowledging the often taken-for-granted underlying economic interconnectedness of citizens in a modern country like Denmark.

Over the course of 80 minutes Hartmann manages to impart a flavor of the Scandinavian's much-discussed (relative) lack of social stratification and its (relatively) even distribution of wealth, although dialogue-heavy sequences in Karen's drama class — the film opens with rehearsals for a performance of Antigone — are a little too on-the-nose in their discussions of gender issues. A nicely offbeat closer involving a senior citizen's performance of a Greenlandic folk song in full colorful 'native' costume is a more effective example of Hartmann's risk-embracing approach. It's a droll creative gamble that combines exasperation and exhilaration in equal measure and which, in both negative and positive ways, leaves us wanting more.

Production company: Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB)
Cast: Annika Nuka Mathiassen, Sofia Nolso, Laura Gustavsen, Sarai Randzorff, Sabine Madsen, Matthias Arid Olsen, Mike Hansen
Director / Screenwriter: Anna Sofie Hartmann
Producers: Nina Helveg, Ben von Dobeneck
Executive producer: Jan Schutte
Production designer: Ida Hammer Ingerslev
Costume designer: Dorethee Bach
Editor: Sofie Steenberger
Sales: DFFB, Berlin

No Rating, 80 minutes