Saturday, January 19, 2019

Berlin & Beyond (Honolulu) ’19: Godless Youth

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.

Despite the Horváth lineage, Godless Youth is highly derivative, but also highly watchable. Somehow, Gsponer and screenwriters Alex Buresch & Mattias Pacht get away with a massively manipulative third act. Oddly enough, the film sort of works, even though it probably arrived several years too late. Recommended for fans of (somewhat classier) YA dystopian fiction, Godless Youth screens tomorrow (1/20) at the Honolulu Museum of Art, as part of this year’s Berlin & Beyond.