Reviewed by: Sophie Charlotte Rieger

Alexej (Tristan Göbel) and Nelly (Jördis Triebel) in West (Westen)
"It is a pity that with inconsequential storytelling Christian Schwochow wastes quite a bit of the story’s potential."

German cinema and the protagonist of Christian Schwochow’s movie have one thing in common - they cannot quite let go of the past. But West, which is based on the novel Lagerfeuer (Campfire) by Julia Franck, tells a story quite different from those we are used to. No WWII or German Democratic Republic drama, no comedy about the latter either. West starts where other stories end - with a successful escape from the GDR to the West.

Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her nine-year-old son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) manage to leave the GDR, but what awaits them on the other side of the wall is far different from the freedom and prosperity they had expected. Nelly soon realises the American allies are not so different from the system she just fled and starts to feel even more paranoid than before.

Copy picture

West shows us something we have hardly ever seen on the screen - the story of a GDR refugee trying to adjust to life in the West. To our surprise, Nelly and Alexey face similar bureaucratic problems as asylum seekers in Germany today. Without bureaucracy there is no citizenship, without citizenship there is no work, without work there is no chance to start a new life. But in contrast to today’s refugees they cannot be sent back. Nelly is facing a different challenge though, because dealing with bureaucracy means being questioned in just the same way as before in the GDR.

Who is her son’s father? Did he really die in a car accident? When did she last talk to him and what did he say? Being forced to go through all this over and over again, Nelly starts to consider her ex might actually be alive and that the secret police is still observing her to find out about his whereabouts.

Whereas the novel by Julia Franck tells this story from multiple perspectives, the adaptation by the director’s mother Heide Schwochow focuses on Nelly and her son. The camera supports this narrative focus by being very close to the heroine, narrowing the visual gaze accordingly, often blurring backgrounds in order to direct the viewer to look at nothing but Nelly. The sometimes super-shaky handheld camera from cinematographer Frank Lamm and the substitution of cuts with fast camera panning unfortunately are a bit too much. Christian Schwochow obviously wants to provide proximity to his protagonist, but as a side-effect he also nauseates his audience.

On the one hand, West is all about Nelly, her experience and her feelings. On the other hand, Schwochow breaks with this concept to show scenes in which she is not present. Seeing beyond the heroine’s limited vision, we cannot fully relive Nelly’s paranoia. We are not seeing things with her eyes but with our own. It is a pity that with this inconsequential storytelling Christian Schwochow wastes quite a bit of the story’s potential.

A lack of consequence is the core weakness of the movie. We get a realistic drama of a woman trying to deal with humiliation by a system that she hoped would finally free her. There is a love story hinted at between Nelly and a CIA agent (Jacky Ido). In a third subplot Schwochow blurs the line between Nelly’s subjective paranoia and the objective reality. Drama, love story, psychological thriller – in its attempt to combine all three genres, the film fails to fully work out at least one of them, denying the audience a satisfying conclusion to all three storylines and posing questions about the narrative aim of the story. What is this movie trying to tell us? About the need to let go of the past and tackle the future?

If that was true, Schwochow doesn’t follow his own advice. West seems to stay in the German cinema comfort zone, reflecting on the past – a less talked about chapter certainly, but the past nonetheless – instead of dealing with issues of the present.

But there is another way to read this movie, interpreting it as a story set in the past, but telling us something about today, about a refugee who is facing the same humiliation and deprivation of liberty she just fled. A movie telling us, that we as the West – which can also be read as the Western world altogether – are no better than those we look down on if we do not live up to our own ideas of democracy, freedom and humanity.

I’m not sure if this makes Schwochow’s movie any better, but it certainly makes it more interesting.

Reviewed on: 17 Dec 2013
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West packshot
A mother and son try to escape their past in East Berlin by heading west.
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Director: Christian Schwochow

Writer: Heide Schwochow, based on the book by Julia Franck

Starring: Jördis Triebel, Tristan Göbel, Alexander Scheer, Anja Antonowicz, Jacky Ido, Stefan Lampadius, Andreas Nickl, Gabriele Schulze, Tania Carlin, Rike Eckermann, Hacky Rumpel, Diana Maria Breuer, Luise Weiß, Michael Witte

Year: 2013

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: Germany


Black Nights 2013

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