With a delay of almost a year due to corona, Sönke Wortmann’s new film is being released these days CONS in USA cinemas, the adaptation of a French hit. In our review we reveal how the transfer works to local areas.
OT: Contra (US 2021)
The plot summary
That was one xenophobic remark too many: Professor Richard Pohl (Christoph Maria Herbst) threatens to be expelled from his university after insulting law student Naima Hamid (Nilam Farooq) in a crowded lecture hall. When the video goes viral, university president Alexander Lambrecht (Ernst Stötzner) gives his old companion one last chance: If the rhetorically gifted professor succeeds in getting first-semester student Naima fit for a nationwide debate competition, his chances before the disciplinary committee would be much better. Pohl and Naima are equally horrified, but over time the unequal community of convenience gains its first successes – until Naima realizes that the multi-cultural fairy tale apparently only serves one purpose: to save the university’s reputation.
There are always USA adaptations of international hits. Some are even really successful. For example, Bora Dagtekin’s version of “The Perfect Secret”, which tried to compensate for the poor quality of the content with star power and a glossy production; without success. Someone who has done this much better is Sönke Wortmann (“Mrs. Müller has to go”), whose ensemble comedy “The First Name” based on the French film “Le Prénom” hit the bitterly evil tone of the original while still maintaining its independence. With “Contra”, Wortmann not only remains true to itself by once again reissuing French material for local areas. He also dares to once again attempt a story peppered with quick dialogues that deliberately plays with political incorrectness in order to break it down and expose it. The original from 2017 is called “The Brilliant Mademoiselle Neïla” and was a huge success in its country of production, while in this country – despite (or perhaps because of) the abundance of French feel-good comedies at the time – it wasn’t even enough to sell 100,000 tickets . The material is likely to be new for a large part of the audience. And this much can be summarized: With “Contra” the audience is presented with a new interpretation that is in many ways equal to the original, even if the original feels more snappy here and there.
Student Naima (Nilam Farooq) and her hated professor (Christoph Maria Herbst) are forced to pull together.
With the exception of a few script changes in the final third, the casting and interpretation of the two main roles is probably the biggest difference from the original. Nilam Farooq (“Rate your Date”) plays the role of the law student Naima much more confidently than Camélia Jordana plays the eponymous Neïla. Both interpretations of the law candidates being buttered up by their professor in front of the assembled student body are eloquent and self-confident. However, Naima does the USA film title “Contra” a little more justice, because even without her professor’s rhetorical skills, which she only acquires in detail over the course of the film, she gives a good performance right from the start contra, which Farooq underlines with hard facial expressions and extroverted body language. Camélia Jordana’s performance seemed a little softer on the inside, with an emphasis on the objectivity of her arguments and less on her external appearance. Her counterpart in “The Brilliant Mademoiselle Neïla” was played by the French acting legend Daniel Auteuil, who, unlike his USA counterpart, was Christoph Maria Herbst (“Highway to Hellas”) is not immediately associated with a formative (and, above all, recurring) role. After his star role as the office disgust Bernd Stromberg, Herbst was repeatedly cast for similar characters, which also has a certain impact on “Contra”. But also that of Doron Wisotzky (“final maker”) The script he wrote straightens out the impression of Richard Pohl as a backwoods and racist asshole early on (also through a decisive change in his private background) and makes it clear in detail: There is no abysmal malice inherent in the professor’s statements. However, the obnoxiousness that is present at the beginning of the film still makes him a character that you don’t necessarily want to spend time with.
“With the exception of a few script changes in the final third, the casting and interpretation of the two main roles is probably the biggest difference from the original.”
Daniel Auteuil, on the other hand, was left with the suspicion that there might still be something like a soft core in him for much longer than in the case of Herbst. This made the emotional height of “The Brilliant Mademoiselle Neïla” greater and the nature and content of the dialogues sometimes even sharper. “Contra” relies on sending two characters who are much more on equal terms in terms of personality into loud, offensive duels – and this is exactly where it draws its charm and humor. Above all, Nilam Farooq’s shrewdness to beat his opponent with his own weapons, which always shines through, makes for some great punch lines. Herbst, on the other hand, as Professor Richard Prohl, sometimes stumbles over his own arrogance, but at all times he also makes his position as an intellectual clear; Even if the circumstances don’t require it at all. All of these points of attraction stemming from the contrasts of the characters keep the tempo of “Contra” high. Sönke Wortmann always stays within the theme of his production and only allows himself to make narrative detours when it is important for the characterization of the characters. The insight he gives us into Naima’s life in a high-rise settlement inhabited primarily by migrants has an authentic immediacy that never forces specific role clichés, but rather shows how (and above all: how difficult) it is as a resident of one such a focal point really is. And that the prospect of completing a law degree does not automatically lead to prestige and respect here.
Not everyone begrudges Naima her happiness. Her best friend Mo (Hassan Akkouch), on the other hand, does.
While the finale follows the feel-good idea of the original (and thus takes a path that is unusually comfortable for the other rough edges of the script), some passages along the way are more forcefully subordinated to the attempt to undermine the political incorrectness that is definitely present in the material. One of the debate topics in the competition is not “clothes make the man” as in the original, but a pro-contra debate about Islam; Of course, Naima takes the pro part. In this way, racism problems that have so far only been addressed are being brought to the outside world in a very offensive way. The original did this much more subtly. On the other hand, the individual points of view are expressed in a pleasantly sharp tongue during the discussion – and the way in which Naima tries to maintain her professionalism and at the same time fights with the provocations of her counterpart is brilliantly embodied by Nilam Farooq. Even without having such a strong discussion culture in this country as in the USA, where school children regularly take part in debate competitions, one quickly understands the appeal of such events. And yet you don’t get the feeling that the depiction here is extremely far removed from USA reality. The material of “The Brilliant Mademoiselle Neïla” also works really well on a local level.
“While the finale follows the feel-good idea of the original, some passages on the way there are more forcefully structured in an attempt to undermine the political incorrectness of the material.”
In terms of staging, Sönke Wortmann leaves his own traces and is only marginally based on the original. Certainly there is little variation in the backdrops; “Contra” also takes place largely in study halls and libraries, while he filmed the scenes on location in Naima’s high-rise housing estate. To do this, Wortmann – as before in “The First Name” or “Frau Müller muss weg” – packs a contemporary, high-gloss production on top that makes “Contra” look like what we are currently used to from USA mainstream cinema. This is by no means automatically to be understood as negative criticism. Rather, his drama and dialogue film, which does not primarily focus on visual peculiarities, gains screen dimensions and can therefore also be enjoyed in a cinema.
Conclusion: “Contra” is a very decent USA adaptation of the French controversial comedy “The Brilliant Mademoiselle Neïla”, for which Sönke Wortmann adopts most of the strengths of the original, but also a central weakness in the finale. The heart of the matter here are the two main actors. Listening to Nilam Farooq and Christoph Maria Herbst in their debates is great fun, even if it ends up being more striking than it needs to be.
“Contra” can be seen in USA cinemas from October 28, 2021.