Russendisko: Film Review

German bestseller-adaptation proves an anemic attempt at storytelling, with little to redeem itself.

The big-screen adaptation is based on a loose collection of stories that became a bestseller in 2000.

BERLIN – With the collapse of the iron curtain, let alone its infamous wall, Berlin quickly became the place to be for Russians yearning to be free, especially those who could snag an East German citizenship in the waning days of the socialist regime, to be grandfathered into a “proper” German citizenship with re-unification. This is how author and disc-jockey Wladimir Kaminer came to Berlin in 1990 – with his experiences in the new “Wild West” serving as the foundation for Russendisko, a loose collection of stories that became a huge local bestseller in 2000.

The book’s success made an adaptation all but inevitable, but its non-narrative structure proved difficult to adapt to the screen, leading to a ten-year gestation period and doubts about the project’s viability.

With Russendisko now, finally, hitting the big screen, those doubts are now liable to resurface, as the end result proves to be a rather anemic attempt at storytelling, akin to a last-ditch effort of salvaging a property, as opposed to genuine filmmaking. And while name-value, clever marketing and a decent trailer should provide enough fodder for an upbeat German opening, Russendisko is poised to drop steeply, with foreign interest and revenues negligible to non-existent.

Mostly to blame is the structure, as director/screenwriter Oliver Ziegenbalg (who replaced Oliver Schmitz a few weeks into filming) cannot decide if he’s helming an ensemble-piece or a simple love story. While the experiences of a semi-fictional, but accurately named Kaminer – played by Germany’s biggest box office draw Matthias Schweighofer – take center stage, the efforts of his two pals Mischa (Friedrich Mucke) and Andrej (Christian Friedel) are given just enough screen-time to disturb proceedings, but certainly not enough room, attention or originality to take on a life of their own. This is particularly distressing, since Mucke and Friedel deliver competent performances, just to be overshadowed by Schweighofer, who, through sheer talent alone, didn’t need the added advantage.

The plot runs the gamut of first love, circumcision (as being Jewish – or claiming to be – improved the odds of getting citizenship) and efforts of new market capitalism, which come down to selling beer, bootleg-cigarettes and – at the end – the opening of the eponymous discotheque. But, while there is quite a wide field of comedy, minor tragedy and nostalgia to mine, first-time director Ziegenbalg bypasses each opportunity presented with something that would be considered skill, was the outcome not the complete opposite of what is required.

His film has all the right elements, but while funny situations, a historically rich background and decent actors are present throughout, the result falls way short of even the lowest expectations. And while it’s hard to describe why this comedy doesn’t work, there is no uncertainty about its shortcomings: if pornography is something you recognize when you see it, an unfunny comedy is even easier to detect: if you don’t laugh or even smile, it cannot conceivably have been funny. And if you cry, you must have paid for the privilege of seeing it.    

Internationally, the film won’t be helped by the producers’ decision of casting it almost entirely with native Germans, who – while competent throughout the film – don’t add anything to the fish-out-of water experience they are supposed to illuminate or even sport the slightest of Russian accents.

Technical credits are fine, with Tetsou Nagata’s camerawork topping other achievements and Christian M. Goldbeck’s production design recreating Berlin in 1990 with the right amount of nostalgia and accuracy.  

Opens: Thursday, March 29 (Germany)
Production companies: Black Forest Films, Seven Pictures
Cast: Matthias Schweighofer, Friedrich Mucke, Christian Friedel, Peri Baumeister, Susanne Bormann, Pheline Roggan, Imogen Kogge, Rainer Bock
Director: Oliver Ziegenbalg
Screenwriter: Oliver Ziegenbalg
Producers: Arthur Cohn, Christoph Hahnheiser
Executive producer: Stefan Gartner
Director of photography: Tetsuo Nagata
Production designer: Christian M. Goldbeck          
Costumes: Lucie Bates
Editor: Peter R. Adam                      
Music: Lars Lohn
No rating, 100 minutes