Monday, January 26, 2015

Berlin & Beyond ’15: Stereo

Film noir fans know when a tough motorcycle guy never talks about the past, there is usually a good reason. In truth, Erik is a little fuzzy on that score himself. Unfortunately, his past will catch up with him good and hard in Maximilian Erlenwein’s Stereo (trailer here), which screens during the 19th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival in San Francisco.

Despite his “scoundrel” tattoo, Erik seems to have made a fresh start, opening a garage in a small, but welcoming provincial town. He has charmed his single mother girlfriend Julia and her adoring daughter Linda. Her cop father Wolfgang is considerably less impressed, but Erik can handle him. The man who will call himself Henry is another story.

The hooded mystery man appears alongside Gaspar, a suspicious looking type who seems to know Erik and some dangerous gangsters they supposedly did wrong. Gaspar has some sort of plan to finish them off, but Erik sends him packing. However, Henry refuses to leave, ever. It turns out he and Gaspar were not together. In fact, nobody can see him except the increasingly alarmed Erik. Eventually, the mechanic will seek non-traditional treatment, but he cannot shake off the antagonistic presence. As the underworld power struggle roughly invades Erik’s new life, Henry will reveal their secret connection. It will not be pretty.

Stereo is sort of a big twist movie, but the 800 pound shoe drops early in the third act, driving some bizarre dramatic dilemmas for Erik. It is fiendishly cleverly constructed by Erlenwein, who pulls off some brazen narrative sleight of hand right before our eyes. Yet, he is also patient enough to set the scene and establish his cast of sinister and straight characters. Erlenwein also gets a huge assist from Ngo The Chau’s carefully framed, visually hypnotic cinematography.

As Erik, Jürgen Vogel’s bald, beading head looks suitably intense through Ngo’s lens and he masterfully sells his wild ride of character development arc. Moritz Bleibtrau is more restrained as the ominous Henry, but he seems to relish the taunting and totally pulls the rug out from under the audience down the stretch. There are plenty of minor players orbiting them (Fabian Hinrichs as a young, not as dumb as he looks doctor scores considerable points in limited screen time), but it is the oppositional chemistry between Vogel and Bleibtrau that really makes the film tick.

It is hard to understand why a genre specialist like Magnet has not scooped up Stereo for distribution yet. It oozes noir style, while Erlenwein skillfully builds the tension organically, going from slow burn to fiery combustion. Highly recommended for fans of dark psychological thrillers, Stereo screens this Thursday (1/29) at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, as part of this year’s Berlin & Beyond.