Tuesday, June 10, 2014

KINO! ’14: Whispers Behind the Wall

Berlin’s rent control policies must be as inflexible and counterproductive as what we have in New York. A meager studio is simply impossible for a first term law student to find. After weeks of living in his car, Martin finally believes he has found a livable pad, but it comes with considerable baggage, including the landlady in Grzegorz Muskala’s Whispers Behind the Wall (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 KINO! Festival of German Films in New York.

Even naïve Martin quickly realizes there is something a little strange about Simone Bader. The application process was a bit unorthodox, but he was more than desperate. It turns out Bader is a borderline psycho with a ragingly jealous lover, but she is also rather attractive. Soon, he is nearly as consumed with her as the previous tenant, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. He happened to leave behind a diary that does not make for reassuring reading.

After a series of amorous, designer drug-fueled encounters, the young student realizes he is also slowly withdrawing from the world. Yet, he is still lucid enough to be concerned by the suspicious behavior of Bader and her sinister super, Herr Horn, but he is unable to forge alliances with Bader’s lover, Sebastian, or their neighbors. At least the rent is cheap. Can we believe a sad sack like Martin would overlook a lot of craziness, just because Bader is hot? Yes, we can.

Whenever a film shows us a corridor to nowhere, we can be certain this is not a healthy living space. Theresia Anna Ficus’s design team has created two genuinely creepy locations, evoking the spirit of several Polanski and Hitchcock films. However, Maskula does not clearly establish the spatial relationships, leaving us to figure out how the two respects flats could simultaneously be adjoining and across the courtyard from each other.

Frankly, Whispers is most effective during its more grounded moments. In fact, there is a gleeful eccentricity fueling the love triangle scenes Martin reluctantly muddles through. In contrast, when things get more macabre, they also become more familiar. In retrospect, there are also several questions left unresolved.

Regardless, Katharina Heyer puts on a real fireworks exhibition as Bader. It is a ferocious, sexually charged performance that devours the scenery like a Teutonic Pac-Man. Poor Vincent Redetzki’s nebbish Martin hardly stands a chance, wilting next to her, but Florian Panzner also manages to bring some distinctive craziness as the mercurial Sebastian.

Whispers is further distinguished by an unusual role reversal, casting the urban hipsters as the dangerous nut jobs and the provincial as the sympathetic plugger. Clearly, eschewing polite restraint, Muskala goes all in, freely mixing genre conventions with old fashioned melodrama. There is a lot of messy, lurid fun to be had as a result. Recommended for fans of obsessive psycho thrillers, Whispers Behind the Wall screens this Friday (6/13), Saturday (6/14), and Sunday (6/15) as part of this year’s KINO! at the Quad Cinema.