Tough Enough

Tough Enough


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Whether it is the slums of Sao Paulo in Hector Babenco's Pixote (1981), the Los Angeles ghetto in John Singleton's Boyz 'N The Hood (1991), the mean streets of Brooklyn in Boaz Yakin's Fresh (1994), the Parisian banlieues in Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995), the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in Fernando Mireilles and Kátia Lund's City Of God (2002), the dusty dumpyards of Kabul in Marzieh Meshkini's Stray Dogs (2004), or the sweaty sidewalks of Queens in Dito Montiel's semi-autobiographical A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints (2006), cinema never makes it easy for young men to escape the violence and criminality of their social milieux.

Yet while Tough Enough (or Knallhart) may only be the latest in a long line of films to deal with this weighty theme, that is not to say it lacks surprises. For if it is hardly the first film to treat contemporary social problems and juvenile delinquency even within Berlin's demi-monde (territory already covered by Christiane F.), it may well be the first Berlin-set film of this type to embrace Hollywood's peculiar signifiers of gritty realism. A vibrant urban soundtrack, rough-and-ready handheld camerawork, colours bleached to a near monochrome - all are present and correct to underscore the film's naturalistic seriousness. It is just about the last material anyone would have expected to be directed by Detlev Buck, previously known for a string of German comedies.

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Tough Enough opens with 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) walking dead-eyed to a police station, with blood on his shoe and a story to tell. It all begins when Michael and his young single mother Miriam (Jenny Elvers-Elbertzhagen) are kicked out by her sugar daddy, and forced to move from ritzy Zehlendorf to the much rougher area of Neukölln.

There, Michael is quickly targetted by a gang of happy-slapping extortioners headed by teenage father Erol (Oktay Özdemir), who terrorise him at and outside school. Faced with the prospect of endless beatings, pay-offs and worse, Michael turns for protection to career criminal Hamal (Erhan Emre), and uses his innocent looks and cool head to become a trusted drug-dealer for the community's biggest fish - only to learn that in this pond, to swim is also to sink.

While Michael is at the centre of Tough Enough, his sense of entrapment radiates from and to the other characters around him. His choices may be constrained by impossible circumstances beyond his control, but his two friends Crille (Arnel Taci) and Matze (Kai Michael Müller) seem just as doomed by their violent homelife to a grim future, and even Erol has become trapped within his quest for peer acceptance and respect. Left pregnant by a vanishing partner when she was Matthew's age, Miriam keeps having to return to her own aging sexuality to support herself and her son - and it seems that Erol's young partner and children may in the end be condemned to a similar fate. Only the policeman Gerber (Hans Löw) offers opportunities that are neither illusory nor criminal - but just being seen talking to him can bring terrible retribution.

Buck has crafted an assured, uncompromising and often tense piece of social commentary on Germany's "invisible" multi-ethnic underclasses, with a bright young white boy to act as cicerone for the German middle-class viewer. Tough Enough extends an uncommon sympathy even towards its would-be villains, boasts several strong central performances (not least from the amazing Kross), and unlike so many other films about an innocent being bullied, there there is no wish-fulfilment dénouement in sight, but only a bleak glimpse into a range of possible futures that all seem equally bleak. It is only let down by the odd 'wacky' minor character (like Roland Florstedt's cane-bearing pawnbroker Captain Nemo), and by an ending whose bewildering openness (is Michael under arrest? did his confession correspond in any way to the events we have just seen unfold?) smacks more of careless indecision than calculated indeterminacy on the part of the filmmakers.

Reviewed on: 21 Aug 2007
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A teenager is drawn into a criminal underworld as he struggles to get by.
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Director: Detlev Buck

Writer: Zoran Drvenkar, Gregor Tessnow

Starring: David Kross, Jenny Elvers-Elbertzhagen, Erhan Emre, Oktay Özdemir, Kida Khodr Ramadan, Arnel Taci, Kai Michael Müller, Hans Löw, Jan Henrik Stahlberg

Year: 2006

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Germany


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