'Pelican Blood' ('Pelikanblut'): Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Too much of a good thing.

The sophomore feature from German director Katrin Gebbe ('Nothing Bad Can Happen') stars Nina Hoss ('Phoenix') as the mother of an impossible 5-year-old.

While Chancellor Angela Merkel could arguably be described as the stern but ultimately benevolent materfamilias of the still-sane inhabitants of the Western world, it is fascinating to note that some (female) filmmakers from Germany have taken an interest in chronicling the lives of troubled kids and their caretakers lately. What can you do with children that are uncontrollable and seem incapable of listening and learning? 

The best German film at this year’s Berlinale was Nora Fingscheidt’s intense shaky-cam ride streaked with hot pink called System Crasher, which tells the story of a wild child too violent for even professional caretakers from a point of view close to the troubled girl herself. And now the opening film of Venice’s Horizons section, Pelican Blood (Pelikanblut), the second film from Katrin Gebbe (Nothing Bad Can Happen, Un Certain Regard 2013), looks at an impossible child, here the second of two adopted daughters, from the increasingly desperate mother’s vantage point. 

Because the mother is played by Christian Petzold’s frequent muse, Nina Hoss (Phoenix, Barbara), this Venice and Toronto title will be in demand at festivals and stands a solid chance of being noted by art house-savvy German-speaking audiences. But Gebbe’s ambitious mix of social-realist drama, animal story — Hoss’s character is a horse trainer, so she’s used to breaking hard-to-tame creatures — and elements from the horror, thriller and supernatural playbooks never quite gels, which makes a wider breakout unlikely.

Wiebke (Hoss) is a cowboy hat-wearing single mom whose idyllic horse farm in Northern Germany is used by the local police to train the animals for use during demonstrations and riots. Her 9-year-old daughter, Nikolina (Adelina-Constance Ocleppo), was adopted from Bulgaria and, though she might still have an accent when speaking, she has integrated herself well. She has even become fast friends with Benedikt (Murathan Muslu), a handsome single cop who comes to practice with the horses and who seems to have an eye on the fiercely independent Wiebke.

The story kicks off in the fall, with the images of cinematographer Moritz Schultheiss (who also shot Nothing Bad Can Happen) drinking in the cool blues and dry yellows and browns of the pastoral countryside. But the idyll is upended with the arrival of Raya (Katerina Lipovska), a 5-year-old also from a Bulgarian orphanage who has a lot of emotional baggage Wiebke is not immediately made aware of. After a smooth start — Gebbe overplays her hand when she combines both slow-motion and honey-colored, near-holy backlighting in a shot of Nina cradling her two daughters in her arms — things go downhill quickly. 

Initially, Wiebke assumes this is behavior that could reasonably be expected of a young child in a new situation as she tries to figure out how far she can go. But things don’t seem to get better and after a while, the girl has no playmates in her pre-school group left and Nikolina, who has been a young model daughter until then, starts to rebel when she sees that her little sister is given a special kind of treatment that she never had. But just as Wiebke sticks with a particularly difficult horse called Top Gun, she is adamant that she will “break” and tame her younger child. (Here, too, Gebbe occasionally underlines the obvious a little too much, like when Benedikt tells Wiebke that “one person believing in you can make all the difference” for a difficult child or horse.)

Thematically speaking, the material raises a lot of fascinating questions, especially in the more realistically staged first part. How do you draw boundaries for a child who seems to ignore them or even takes a perverse pleasure in overstepping them? What can you do as a parent when you realize that your love and protection aren’t enough? What if the uncontrollable behavior of your kid is putting your other offspring or even yourself in danger, something that seems like a real possibility here as the story progresses? 

Raya’s tantrums and dangerous conduct lead various supporting characters to suggest she should go. But this would create a kind of impossible Catch-22 situation in Wiebke’s mind. If she gave up on Raya, the girl would go back to an orphanage and her trauma — or whatever the source of her problematic behavior is — would not only not be solved but probably become worse because she has to deal with another rejection and more proof she’s not loved or wanted. 

This very scary prospect, this sense of there being no way out of an impossible situation that's barely comprehensible, is enhanced by Gebbe’s liberal use of elements from genre films, especially in the film’s second half. There's creepily atmospheric music, ominous drawings on the walls and secret hideouts with troubling treasures hidden inside them. But it is especially the complex soundscape that impresses. There is an absolutely chilling moment when it has become impossible for Wiebke — and the audience — to tell whether the screaming and crying we seem to hear is coming, yet again, from Raya in the next room or whether the agitated horses outside are just loudly neighing. How is Wiebke supposed to take care of all these creatures when she’s not even sure who is demanding her attention? 

(Spoilers ahead.) But the genre elements, though well-done by themselves, also constitute the feature’s greatest weakness, especially when Gebbe asks viewers to swallow the fact that Wiebke would be so desperate that she would turn to unscientific or even illegal measures and, finally, the occult to try and help her child. At the script level, the psychological groundwork for such a drastic mental shift for someone as seemingly earthy and reasonable as Wiebke isn’t credibly laid out, and Hoss can only do so much to try to convince us otherwise.

It also creates another problem, because if the cause of Raya’s issues was really otherworldly and thus couldn’t possibly be solved or at least assuaged rationally, all of the film’s ruminations on parenthood, responsibility and the necessity of boundaries as well as boundless love for children would finally ring hollow. Like a troubled child, a filmmaker can either have her cake or eat it — but not both.

Production companies: Junafilm, Miramar Film, SWR, Arte
Cast: Nina Hoss, Katerina Lipovska, Adelina-Constance Ocleppo, Murathan Muslu
Writer-director: Katrin Gebbe
Producers: Verena Graefe-Hoeft
Cinematography: Moritz Schultheiss 
Production design: Silke Fischer, Anna Boyanova
Costume design: Stefanie Bieker, Kristina Tomova
Editing: Heike Gnida
Music: Johannes Lehniger, Sebastian Damerius 
Casting: Simone Baer, Alexandra Fuchanska
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Horizons — Opening film)

Sales: Films Boutique 

In German, Bulgarian
126 minutes