'Zurich': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Life is a series of car crashes in this stylish but disjointed Eurodrama

A grieving woman wanders the highways of northern Europe in Dutch director Sasha Polak's sophomore feature, which premieres this week at the Berlinale

The young Dutch director Sacha Polak won the FIPRESCI prize at the 2012 Berlinale with her feature debut Hemel, a sexually frank portrait of a damaged young woman which earned approving comparisons to Steve McQueen's Shame. Polak returns to Berlin this week with her second feature, another collaboration with screenwriter Helena van der Meulen, which contains clear thematic and stylistic links to their previous work. As Polak herself explains it, Hemel was about a motherless child while Zurich is about a childless mother.

Zurich is a visually rich, emotionally charged, sense-scrambling character study of a woman in crisis. The theme this time is the shattering effect of grief on Nina (Wende Snijders), and the negative aftershocks her heartbroken state has on the people around her. Partly developed during a four-month Berlinale residency, Polak's sophomore feature is a Dutch, German and Belgian co-production with dialogue in multiple languages, including English. Strong enough for further festival bookings, it should interest events that celebrate rising female film-makers, but the bleak subject and fragmented narrative will likely make it a niche prospect for distributors.

Polak grabs our attention from the off with a dreamlike tableaux involving a crashed car and a cheetah, a striking but ultimately meaningless piece of surreal symbolism. Divided into two long chapters, and pointedly starting with the second, the non-linear story opens midway through with Nina reeling from an unseen trauma. A lost soul adrift along the lonely highways and truck stops that crisscross Holland and northern Germany, she appears to be in a self-destructive spiral of drink, casual sex and fractious encounters with random strangers. There are strong echoes of Hemel here.

Nina begins a shaky relationship with German trucker Matthias (Sascha Alexander Gersak), a kindly divorcee with two young sons, but her erratic behavior eventually drives him away. Meanwhile, she is haunted by visions of a bearded man who turns out to be her former long-term boyfriend Boris, another truck driver who recently died in a road crash that appears to be suicide. The location of his death, a small Dutch village called Zurich, helps unlock the puzzle of the film's title.

Rewinding the story back a few months, the first chapter runs second in sequence, showing us a more composed Nina in her settled life with Boris and the shattering effect of  his death. Polak also shades in further complications, including the first wife and family that Boris left behind, and other emotional bonds that weigh heavily on Nina. Thus the first chapter helps to explain and illuminate the second, though it still leaves some questions unresolved.

Stylishly shot, with extensive use of slow motion, blurred focus and poetic visual motifs, Zurich is a sensually seductive experience. The music, a blend of heart-tugging choral pieces and melancholy electronica, adds to its arty polish. Reminiscent of a young Frances McDormand at times, Snijders' performance radiates raw conviction, even when Nina is at her most unhinged and unsympathetic.

Polak and van der Meulen clearly have bright futures in film-making, even if it sometimes feels they use structural gimmicks and surface flash to disguise soapy melodrama as emotional depth. Zurich is an arresting character study of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but its classy ingredients do not entirely add up to a satisfying dramatic whole.

Production companies: Viking Film, A Private View, Rohfilm
Cast: Wende Snijders, Sascha Alexander Gersak, Barry Atsma, Martijn Lakemeier
Director: Sacha Polak
Screenwriter: Helena van der Meulen
Producer: Marleen Slot
Cinematographer: Frank van den Eeden
Editor: Axel Skovdal Roelofs
Music: Rutger Reinders
Sales company: Beta Film, Germany
Unrated, 89 minutes

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