Often in life we find ourselves met with tangible goals, milestones that we try to pass in the belief that they will change or benefit our lives in some way. Classic Hollywood cinema was a sucker for these ‘happy endings’, the point where everything cannot help but inevitably get better. However in our post-modern world these stories ring false and we want to see beyond. This is where Christian Schowchow takes us in West, the story of Nelly, a single mother trying to start a new life with her son, Alexei in West Berlin.
Before the title card flashes up Schwochow has already treated us to three distinct and powerful vignettes. These show us the story up until the point where the story would classically end. The first, an idyllic snow scene: mother, son and father as the perfect family unit. Next, the breakdown of this unit, the loss of a father figure and the arduous crossing to West Berlin. Lastly, the pop music stirs up in the background and the bright lights shine. Alexei, a veritable child of Marx and Coca-Cola picks up an empty Coke can and treasures it. It’s a short segment but already we sense the imposing falseness, the bright lights and misplaced hope that will accompany this crossing.
The good/bad dichotomy between East and West Germany is totally deconstructed in this film. Schwochow treats the golden myth of social mobility and capitalism with the same cynical eye as the degenerate films of New York: Gatsby, Taxi Driver. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, full of close ups and hemmed in by the concrete walls of the Refugee Centre. Ongoing interrogations into Nelly’s past and motives bar the way to citizenship, leaving them to rot in the paranoid, hopeless ghetto they find themselves in.
Jördis Triebel won Best Actress at the German Film Awards for this role and it’s not hard to see why. The film is always either with Nelly or Alexei which gives her a huge amount of screen time. It would be so easy to slip into a portrayal of an erratic, on the edge woman with no real depth but Nelly’s anger, paranoia and hatred always seem justified. The extreme nature of her actions just serve to highlight the cruel and difficult circumstances she has to deal with. Tristan Göbel also gives a fantastic performance, however he stays a little more within the archetype of a kind child in a difficult situation. Nevertheless his deep distress is palpable as he tries to reach out and make his, and his mother’s life better without ever breathing a word of complaint.
There’s a near-documentary harshness in the cinematography. So much is handheld and Schowchow allows some things to fall out the edges of frames, as if by accident. There’s no sentimental symbolism here, just a cold hard examination of the facts. Many of the plotlines don’t finish, or at least finish unsatisfactorily, leaving us in the lurch. Yet in the end that’s the point of it all, to be able to leave behind the past and the paranoia, be it caused by East or West.
- Entertainment: 5/5
- Artistic: 5/5
- Intellectual: 5/5
I have not been so blown away by a film in a long time.