“German Lesson” director Christian Schwochow takes part JE SUIS KARL not the first time in Germany politics – regardless of whether in the past or present. His latest film is loud and uncomfortable. And also a little bit tender. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Je suis Karl (DE/CZE 2021)
Somewhere in Berlin. Not sometime – today. A package in the hallway. Alex (Milan Peschel) is a husband and father of three children. He forgets the wine in the car. And is then torn from the routine of his everyday life by a devastating explosion. As he staggers, he can’t find his footing again. Maxi (Luna Wedler) is his daughter and a powerful young woman who is setting off into what is called life. Who imagined her cord-cutting to be different, gets angry and asks questions. The charismatic Karl (Jannis Niewöhner) has long since left and seems to have the answers that Maxi is still looking for. He catches Maxi every now and then. Knows her anger and the outlet. Resolute, extremely clever and seductive, he dances with her on a knife’s edge. As part of a movement. Today in Berlin. Tomorrow in Prague. Soon in Strasbourg – all over Europe. It’s a power grab.
Even those who don’t know a word of French have inevitably stumbled across the word “Je suis” – in Germany: “I am” – in recent years. Necessarily because the origin of the word, namely the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015, is by no means a pretty one. “Je suis Charlie”, i.e. “I am Charlie”, became a statement of solidarity and compassion on social networks at the time; and subsequently found many imitators. For example, after the terrorist attack on Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz (“Je suis Berlin”), or – not meant nearly as seriously as the creators of the exclamation originally intended – “Je suis Böhmermann”, when the satirist became a state affair after his controversial diatribe against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “Je suis Karl” is the name of Christian Schwochow’s latest film (“Germany lesson”), which is somewhat of a spoiler. But this time the crucial thing about the drama is less the how and more the what. What leads to this exclamation being made at the end of “Je suis Karl”? Schwochow creates the path to the answer, which is actually no answer at all, as a clear indictment of this What. Maybe even too clear here and there. But the topic, the rebellion of the “New Right”, is hardly one that can be worked out subversively. Especially not when it is told from the perspective of a young woman who is easily seduced by external circumstances and is simply looking for stability in life.
Karl (Jannis Niewöhner) shows understanding for the fate-stricken Maxi (Luna Wedler).
“Je suis Karl” is about the so-called “Re/Generation”. An identitarian movement launched by young adults with Karl at the head, who attracts everyone’s sympathy, and who gives speeches that are just as rousing as Fred Hampton once called on the Black Panther community to stand up for their rights. With the big difference that the Re/Generation is not concerned with freeing itself from racist structures, but rather creating them itself. This makes the comparison with another radical rhetorician in world history much closer. In view of how the Re/Generation and the New Right in general act, this image of the leader seems almost outdated. Because today the New Right uses the protection of group cohesion rather than relying on a single speaker. And all those who have actually made it to high political offices cannot be said to have any leadership qualities simply by their appearance. The depiction of the movement members, on the other hand, is much closer to the here and now. Because the next generation of racists no longer comes with shaved heads “Sieg Heil!”-Shouts (in one scene, a Re/Generation member is even reprimanded in front of the assembled group for making this very exclamation. Of course: otherwise the group would come out of their cover!). Instead, these people are much more subtle. So much so that even Maxi, who comes from an avowedly left-wing family, falls for the charm of the Re/Generation, but especially of their leader Karl.
“In view of how the New Right operates, this image of the leader seems almost outdated. Because today the New Right uses the protection of group cohesion rather than relying on a single speaker.”
The fact that “Je Suis Karl” begins with a hand-held camera scene in which her family helps a refugee cross the border into United Kingdom makes the audience aware of Maxi’s political background. Here too, it can easily be argued that it was Christian Schwochow or Thomas Wendrich (“Me and Kaminski”) mean a little too well with their classification into left and right; “Je suis Karl” is definitely not a film of shades of gray. At the same time (with a few exceptions) he tells the story almost entirely from the perspective of the young Maxi. Your perception of events is key here. She takes her belonging to a left-wing family for granted – and the transfer of a refugee across the border is correspondingly triumphant. Of course, it also increases the height of the fall: the fact that even a person like her allows herself to be incentivized by the Re/Generation underlines the methods of the New Right (which are presented here as very successful). And yet both the intense beginning of “Je suis Karl” and Luna Wedler’s outstanding performance put this potential weak point into perspective. Painfully intense and radical, the first minutes of the film depict the collapse of a family idyll and Maxi’s breaking away of his own identity, which seemed so secure in the environment of his father, mother and siblings. In a scene in which the “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” actress screams out her pain, while Milan Peschel’s (“Basin Edge Sheriff”) The father, who appears paralyzed and then tries to deal with the loss of his wife and children in himself and is depressed, embodies the complete opposite of such an outburst of anger. Wedler is particularly impressed by her powerful physique. When Maxi then wanders through Berlin, visibly empty and weak, no further explanation is needed: this girl has lost everything. Above all, yourself.
Nothing is the same in Berlin after the attack…
She is all the more receptive to the advances of the understanding Karl, who promises her not only closeness but also support. The same applies to the re/generation he leads, whose members literally court Maxi in her victim status. Christian Schwochow shows that the young woman, despite her original moral compass, becomes part of the community as a process from the origin of despair that can be understood at any time. Above all, the fact that Maxi never radicalizes herself, but rather goes along with it and closes her eyes and ears to her new friend’s actual intentions (in one scene, for example, she simply has headphones on when particularly radical plans are being exchanged), contributes to the plausibility of the film’s processes. But “Je suis Karl” does not rely exclusively on the gradual changes of its female protagonist. Every now and then Schwochow breaks out of Maxi’s subjective perspective and describes, either in flashbacks or scenes without Maxi’s presence, what is hidden from the young woman remained and remains. The creative people do not stage this additional information like a twist. Some developments emerge too quickly for that, while Karl’s background is explained very early on for what has gone before to be perceived in any way in the opposite way. At the same time, these targeted ones increase Narrative decisions significantly increase the tension as we see Maxi running into a much greater doom than we previously imagined. And above all the question arises, How radical the re/generation really is, will soon no longer be – and the danger in which Maxi finds himself is even more present.
“Christian Schwochow shows that the young woman, despite her original moral compass, becomes part of the community as a process from the origin of despair that can be understood at any time.”
In addition to Luna Wedler, Jannis Niewöhner also shines (“Cortex”) in his role as an eloquent, seductive leader, whom the casting directors could hardly have cast better. The 29-year-old from Krefeld is not just one of the most talented mimes of his generation, but also exudes a presence that is absolutely necessary for the credible embodiment of such a character. At no point does one question the fact that Maxi Karl is falling into disrepair. Because he doesn’t actually have to do anything more than smile charmingly. Milan Peschel, who is rarely seen here, also acts as strong as usual. His portrayal is sometimes reminiscent of his award-winning performance in Andreas Dresen’s cancer drama “Stop on the Free Route”. The big stage here belongs entirely to the young generation of actors. And “Je suis Karl” makes it tremble and roar in the best moments.
Conclusion: Christian Schwochow’s “Je suis Charlie” is not exactly a subtle and therefore by no means controversial film in its direct depiction of the methods of the New Right. But through the narrative perspective of Maxi, played outstandingly by Luna Wedler, he gives an even clearer insight into a new form of radicalism.
“Je suis Karl” can be seen in USA cinemas from September 16, 2021.