Review: “Nackte Tiere”

A World Without Parents
By Lili Hering

In Melanie Waelde’s Nackte Tiere, a group of teens inhabits a world where adults are evanescent presences.

A world without parents, where only the children remain – would that be a scary or a better place? Screened in the 70th Berlinale’s Encounters sidebar, Melanie Waelde’s Nackte Tiere (Germany) conflates the freedom of such scenario with its solitude, the easement with desperation. In her savage debut film, a group of young people in their late teenage years grapple with most urgent questions – where do I want to go from here? And how do I leave?

Katja, Sascha, Benni, Schöller, and Laila spend their last winter holidays together before graduation. Nackte Tiere, which translates to Naked Animals, is set in the middle of an unidentified somewhere – neither a village nor a town, in the midst of a featureless, dull countryside on the outskirts of Berlin. They live on their own, in a decrepit apartment filled with sleeping bags and cushions for the odd friend in need of a place to stay. Some of the absent parents play a minor role in their respective homes, while others are never talked about (and never missed either, as Katja herself puts it). The film shares the confines of the teenagers’ flat. Around them, violence always lingers: from the film’s opening shot, where Katja trains jiu jitsu, to her savage friendship with Sascha, and the wounds they all carry – be they from abuse at home, accidents, or wrestling. Feelings are rarely expressed through words, but on the protagonists’ bodies.

Shot in a near-square 6:5 format and mostly in close shots, the film enforces a physical intimacy which its characters cannot hold up to emotionally. In alternate shifts, they take care of Benni – prone to self-harm – share the same rooms, beds and bathtub, but find no way to articulate their feelings. If they have to stick together, it is not only to be in one frame. The story is told from Katja’s perspective, acting as the group leader, and Marie Tragousti’s performance oscillates between her self-assertion through physical strength, and her fear of scaring everyone away with it.

The young cast (Sammy Scheuritzel, Luna Schaller, Paul Michael Stiehler, Michelangelo Fortuzzi) delivers a remarkable ensemble play, painting a gripping portrait in pointed, parse dialogue. The palpating camera work and delicate set design create a raw coming-of-age, an atmosphere of neglect bathed in greys and blues that stand at the other end of the colour spectrum of Leonie Krippendorff’s Kokon, the opening film of this year’s Generation section, a yellow-lit, sun-filled chronicle of one Berlin summer. By contrast, Nackte Tiere unspools as a winter tale, drenched in an all-encompassing tristesse leading to what may – possibly, hopefully – lead to  a brighter season.

As a group, Waelde’s teens are a herd of naked animals: no fur or feathers to protect them, only their bare skin. They survive as a pack, caring for each other’s wounds, whether a cut or a broken heart. Someone is always bleeding, all bodies are being harmed: they serve as vehicles to confront life as well as shells the teens have built up, and cages for past traumas. When two classes are cancelled and Katja must wait outside school, her friend goes: “I have a car,” hinting at a possible journey. She replies: “But I have nowhere to go.” The only option she sees for herself is to leave the place behind – and her own herd, too.

Lili Hering
©
FIPRESCI 2020