After all the other guests leave, the host, Karsten (Sebastian Hülk), is left alone with Anna (Natalia Belitski) who turns out to have crashed the party. Soon Anna is dead. That’s where Karsten’s life starts to get complicated in All of a Sudden (Auf Einmal), which won the Fipresci prize in the International Competition of the 35th Istanbul Film Festival.
Karsten is a 30-something bank employee. His actions are called into question. Could he have saved the life of the woman had he acted more sensibly and decisively? The shadow of doubt – and a court case – start to undermine his life. Karsten’s girlfriend, Laura (Julia Jentsch), would like to know what exactly happened between him and Anna. Life at work gets troublesome when his boss starts to worry that Karsten’s case will damage the bank’s reputation. Even Karsten’s father (Hanns Zischler), a power figure in the small town, seems to throw him to the wolves.
Director Asli Özge (born 1975) casts the same doubts in the minds of her audience. She keeps the details of the fateful night hidden from everybody except Karsten. That choice draws attention to how moral judgement may often depend on quite small subtleties of behavior. Karsten is no hero. He runs the gauntlet like a rat in a maze. But his weakness is nothing extraordinary either. He’s a more ambiguous figure than the kindergarden teacher under suspicion in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt a few years ago. Karsten’s ordinariness feels realistic and is essential to the way All of a Sudden works. Relating to Karsten, even identifying with him, is easy but not comfortable. That makes viewers question how they’d manage in his shoes. Sebastian Hülk in his biggest role so far does a great job balancing Karsten on the verge of being an outright unlikable character. Hülk has often played small villains in supporting roles, but Karsten offers him space to show his range of nuances.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s films the heroes struggled under heavy suspicions, and there’s something Hitchcockian in Karsten’s guilt trip. It is also reminiscent of film noir, in which guilt often sucked protagonists into the vortex of destiny. Karsten seems to be in somewhat similar situation. But All of a Sudden is no film noir, nor a simple morality tale. Eventually it turns into a story of Karsten’s character development. He tries to escape the mounting pressures, but in contemporary society there’s no place to run to. Even the most distant mountain tops are dominated by the symbols of society, the flag and the cross (in Germany that is indeed the case with most mountains, according to the director).
Eventually all the pressures harden Karsten’s nature. But is that a positive development? He acquires the qualities that might allow one to succeed in life. In our day those qualities, like ruthlessness and greed, might seem unsavory and their benefits dubious. Karsten’s change and his final destiny turn the focus of All of a Sudden to society and its values. By making us share Karsten’s point of view, Özge makes the movie an effective catalyst for thought.
Özge, who is Turkish, wrote the script of All of a Sudden on the basis of a news item in her native country. The movie is her first German production. The story is universal. It matters little in which country it takes place in. Perhaps Karsten’s struggles stand out a bit better in stable Germany than they would in restless Turkey.
All of a Sudden is Özge’s third movie. Her sure-handed and inventive cinematic skills make it an impressive experience. Editing, photography and sound design are expressive.
© FIPRESCI 2016