Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Bliss is one of those films whose craft may not immediately be apparent to the average viewer, but it’s a beautifully constructed piece of work."

Sometimes finding love is as easy as catching a stranger’s eye across a crowded room. Keeping it, however, requires an ability to orientate oneself first and foremost in regard to that individual, without overdue reference to the rest of the world. Once one starts to define one’s passions in relation to what others say is possible or permissible, that essential leap of faith on which love depends becomes much, much harder.

Maria (Adam Hoya) catches the eye of Sascha (Katharina Behrens) as soon as she enters the common room of the brothel where Sascha works. She’s the new girl, just 25, up from Italy and in need of a job that will enable her to keep up with the cost of living in Berlin. She’s done this kind of work before. It’s nothing unusual, just a question of creating simple fantasies and performing routine tasks for assorted male guests. Most are polite, understanding it as a professional transaction. Many are regulars, and they have their favourites. Sascha is particularly popular.

The brothel here is a real brothel. Hoya is a real sex worker. Some viewers will doubtless regognise similarities with Kana Yamada’s 2020 film Life:Untitled; both set aside cinema’s fantasies of sex work to engage with the way it works in the real world, and most brothels look the same the world over. There are snacks in the cupboard. The women site around, bored, in their underwear. The man in room eight wants a hand job and a fanta.

The idea for the film arrived, director Henrika Kull has said, when she first visited this brothel on an earlier shoot and realised what a female-centred space it was. Rather than being powerless there, the women hold the patriarchal world at bay, offering transactional sex on their terms and otherwise enjoying a degree of freedom not afforded to those who depend on male providers or are afraid of the stigma attached to their own sexual expression. Within that space, all sorts of things can happen. Sascha and Maria can fall in love. In the wider world, however, the situation is different.

Unlike Maria, who has left most of the complications of her life behind (though she does still carry carefully concealed trauma), Sascha is compelled to traffic with the wider world. She’s 42. She has a complicated past and a ten-year-old son, who lives with his father and his father’s new partner in the much more socially conservative Brandenburg. When she and Maria get serious, she decides that she really wants to introduce her to her son, so they take a trip there, coinciding with the local beer festival. In that different space, where homophobia and stigma against sex work are much more potent, things begin to fall apart.

Bliss is one of those films whose craft may not immediately be apparent to the average viewer, but it’s a beautifully constructed piece of work. It’s not just the contrast between sex performed for work and sex as an expression of genuine personal desire; it’s also the ways in which different characters are recognised as human, with the focus on faces, or reduced in the eyes of others to a collection of functional body parts. It’s the way that the protagonists are often placed off-centre, inviting us to pay just as much attention to the anonymous crowds or moving cityscapes in the background, and the way they’re seen through glass or echoed by reflective surfaces, distorted, multiplied. For most of the running time they exist as characters shaped by context; only at critical moments in their relationship do we see them clearly: whole, fresh-faced, looking at the world with real awareness of its potential. It is here that love emerges.

Reviewed on: 23 Dec 2021
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Two sex workers meet in a Berlin brothel. In a place where the female body is a commodity, they experience moments of happiness.
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