Those clean-cut Aryan teens certainly enjoy fresh mountain air and vigorous outdoor sports. Yet, somehow, an elite class’s outdoor-bound style retreat took a sinister turn in Ödön von Horváth’s final anti-totalitarian novel. Nearly a century later, his parable of hyper-competitive sociopathic students looks like an eerily prescient forerunner of the already past-its-prime Hunger Gamey wave of YA dystopian novels. The best and the brightest show their true colors in Alain Gsponer’s contemporary-near-future adaptation of Godless Youth (trailer here), which screens during Berlin & Beyond’s 2019 Honolulu series.
Zach is physically and intellectually at the top of his class. Ordinarily, he would be a major contender during the Rowald University competition, but he is a tad bit distracted by the recent suicide of his father. He also has been developing a social conscious, which will not exactly be an asset for him either. Initially, the ambitious Nadesh is thrilled to be paired up with the big-man-on-campus, but she is frustrated by his apathy. Her attempts to bond through clumsy expressions of sympathy are also counter-productive. The truth is Zach just isn’t interested in her or the program. Instead, he is fascinated by Ewa, a rebellious squatter illegally living in the forest.
Alas, Zach’s tense relationship with Nadesh will take a tragic turn. Their teacher Herr Lehrer is partly to blame. He rather likes Zach, even though the lad’s idealism reminds him of what a pathetic sellout he has become. Unfortunately, his attempts to interfere backfire spectacularly.
So, Godless really is like a German-speaking Hunger Games, but ironically, it has considerably less gladiatorial blood lust. Yet, given Twentieth Century history, the fact that it is a German film adds an element of unsettling discomfort. While Horváth’s source novel gives it a literary pedigree, its aesthetic is really much more YA dystopia (Darkest Minds, Divergent) than Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.
This is definitely a case of good-looking twenty-somethings playing teens acting badly. Yet, Jannis Niewöhner and Alicia von Rittberg deserve credit for developing a convincingly chilly lack of chemistry as Zach and Nadesh. Fahri Yardim also guilt-trips something fierce as Lehrer. Plus, Rainer Bock (who also appeared in White Ribbon) is interesting to look at as the crusty old Trainer.