Monday, November 17, 2014

European Union Film Festival Review- West

The setting is East Berlin winter 1975. A woman and child exit a building make snowballs and take up post as the side of the door. A man exits the door and is pelted by the other two. He goes after the child laughingly but soon has to leave giving the child his sweater to help keep warm.

The story jumps ahead three months the woman again emerges from the same door with the child this time with their luggage packed as they hop into a waiting car and head toward the checkpoint for West Berlin. It's at the crossing where Nelly (Jordis Triebel) experiences the first instant of interrogation on her trip. Her son Alexej (Tristan Gobel) has to go to the bathroom taken there by a solider.  Nelly is next removed from the car then forced to undress and remove her jewellery in a small room. When she returns Alexej is back in the vehicle and they cross to the West. Now on the other side the pair are dropped off at the West Berlin Refugee centre. Nelly is given some money, credit for 7 days worth of meals and a room with a set of bunk beds for her and Alexej in Block B. She is also given a card with twelve spots that she has to get stamped in order to become a citizen of the West enabling her to get a full time job and a place to live outside of the Centre.

Based on a self biographical novel by Julia Franck  director Christian Schwochow weaves a tale that shows that forces on both sides of the Cold War  benefitted when people lived in fear. Nelly has to answer questions from the Allied Security Services to earn one of the stamps. When she is asked day after day by CIA agent John Bird (Jacky Ido) why she came to the West she answers to avoid treatment similar to what she is currently enduring.  It appears that officials on both sides of the wall are working the theory that Alexej's father Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek) a leading Russian Physicist and possible Stasi informant did not die three years go as believed but instead disappeared or defected and is now living anonymously in the West. This theory leads Nelly to believe both sides are watching her. Rumours of Stasi informants in the camp also get her guard up. The whisper of information effects everyone in the Centre especially Hans (Alexander Scheer) who befriends Alexej but is shunned and abused by other residents having been branded with the rat tag.

At first Nelly fights the interrogations and physical prodding but eventually realised cooperation is the best way to earn the stamps for their freedom.  However her paranoia continued to mount as evidenced by a complete meltdown when Alexej leaves her a surprise gift in the apartment that she is sure was placed in her home by someone who broke in with bad intentions.

The film is rewarded with an excellent performance by Jordis Triebel in the lead role of Nelly. She brings the viewer right back to the high tension of a time in the not too distant past from her original  overreaction to her son being taken to the washroom at the border as an act meant to separate them. In one moment she is defiant with the officials and security forces the next friendly and if it serves her purposes willing to use her female charms to achieve a goal.

Christian Schwochow brings to the screen a story set in a clandestant time that appears to have been very long ago. Much of the scenes in the interrogation room at the border, the Centre apartment hallways and inside the apartments themselves are dark perhaps a sign of the expected fate of many of the residence. It's an effective telling of an under explored subject and well worth the watch.

*** Out of 4.

West | Christian Schwochow | Germany | 2014 | 102 Minutes.

Tags: DDR, Stasi, Refuge Centre, Secret Service, Paranoia, Spy, Citizenship,

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