Christian Schwochow’s Je Suis Karl, which premiered at the Berlinale Special Section starts with hypnotic urgency. Handheld iPhone-style tracking footage follows a middle-aged couple Inès (Mélanie Fouché) and Alex (Milan Peschel) as they smuggle a Libyan refugee named Yusuf (Aziz Dyab) over the German border from Budapest. Tragedy follows imminently as their teenage daughter Maxi (Luna Wedler) joins them from Paris and cuts short any possibility of bonding with the family, when a parcel bomb ravages her family. Rather than employing a direct undercut of the explosion through special effects, the explosion sequences capture a bird who falls in the debris. Although effective, it feels starved in its staging and appropriation.
That can be said for the film itself, which follows this tragedy with a jarring melodramatic rendering. Following the opening sequence, only Maxi and Alex survive the blast- which is instantly perceived as an Islamic terror attack. Thereafter, Maxi removes herself from the family and lands up with Karl (Jannis Niewoehner), who is involved with the Re/Generation Europe movement, which forms extreme right politics in a marketable fashion. That he becomes her lover is established in a while. The action then merges into timely and effective scenes that are staged by Schwochow and his screenwriter, Thomas Wendrich with insight and style. But, style steps ahead of substance here, as the density with which the characters are involved with the actions does not reflect fully onto the screen. The prologue (Also, after watching Je Suis Karl you cannot help but wonder why a movie that is so inclined towards the issue of racism does not care to include non-white actors?)
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This is exactly what is pointedly missing from Je Suis Karl, with Christian Schwochow’s background in TV (he directed an episode of the Netflix-hit The Crown and the first season of hit German series Bad Banks.) clearly palpable in the staged scenes and character arcs that are infused with plot devices without necessarily leaving a mark. Consider the scene where Maxi unravels in front of Karl about how she misses her mother. The scene lacks a necessary insight from the side of Karl since we are aware he will definitely use this steak of hers to the party’s advantage. Je Suis Karl understands the performative positions of its titular characters yet falls short of reflecting that on screen due to the multiple threads it navigates within two hours of its runtime.
The performances save the day. Almost. Wedler makes the most of her Maxi and situates her with a quieter sense of pathos amid all the major transitions that the character undergoes. As Karl, Niewoehner is believable as well as forced in parts, yet his natural screen presence automatically generates a stoic guard that is a treat to unravel. But it is the grieving father, in which Peschel proves to be enormously helpful in boosting the narrative with a necessary jolt of feeling and spirit.
It is as if Alex is demanding a better chance, but somehow the hurried plot turns leaves him (or even the protagonists) without much to unpack. Je Suis Karl touches on an extremely important topic in European politics on the rhetoric of extremist politics that includes anti-immigrant agendas. With a glossed-up and hurried follow-up to the promising opening sequence, Je Suis Karl is too predictable and inconsistent to register as a serious mediation on the issues it addresses. Shot in Czech, Christian Schwochow is assisted expertly by cinematographer Frank Lamm in hushed, saturated tones, which also helps in easing the pointed editing by Jens Klüber.
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How the politics flow through the generational values of idealism would have made for a compelling watch on screen if Je Suis Karl had not tried to bring in melodramatic elements of romance in the mix and given his characters the time to breathe. Still, the nuanced performances are more than just a reason to not miss this one.