"Hounds": The Boy Who Came in from the Cold By Rüdiger Suchsland

in 57th Berlinale

by Rüdiger Suchsland

Silence can be a virtue. Silence as well can be a state of nature. It can be an environment and a social gesture. It can be death. Silence does not always imply the lack of words. Sometimes it is an attitude to the world. Silence is definitely all of this in Hounds (Jagdhunde), the marvelous debut-feature which has won the FIPRESCI award for the best Forum-film at this years Berlinale.

Ann-Kristin Reyels is a promising director. In her first long film she tells the story of a dysfunctional family. A new environment, the rough, in first view lifeless winter-landscape of the Uckermarck — the flat marginal populated and agricultural north-east-area between Berlin and the border to Poland — functions as a catalyst for their inner conflicts. Bourgeois life never looked less spectacular, and duller than here, in the days before Christmas Eve.

In the center stays the 16-year-old Lars (played by the fabulous Constantin von Jascheroff, first seen in Cannes, A Certain Regard of 2005) in the main part in Christoph Hochhäusler’s Low Profile (Falscher Bekenner)). For some months, his family has lived in a farm near a small town. They want to rebuild it into a wedding-hotel, but are not sure if there are very many wedding-couples left. For unknown reasons the inhabitants of the village ignore these newcomers. His mother has moved out, at odds with his father, and stays somewhere in a bigger city. So just Lars’ father is left. He is a good person, but also kind of weak and frustrated, as well as not really a talker. There are also two beautiful Hounds, with who Lars likes to cross into the woods around a small, currently frozen, lake and to disappear for hours.

For Christmas, Lars should visit his mother, but he misses the train. On his way back, he meets Marie (Luise Berndt), a mute village-girl, with whom he soon falls in love. The scenes of that first meeting are especially well staged and observed — there is one wonderful and very funny table-tennis-game, where the actors mix with non-actors.

So Lars is melting more and more although the other emotional relations are unfreezing. The metaphorical landscape and symbolism of snow, ice, frost and coldness, of chilling and warming up is quite important in this picture.

Ann-Kristin Reyels is a very good and sensitive observer, full of sensibility and understanding for tiny gestures and the small changes of human behavior. The storytelling is elliptic and atmospheric. The view she takes of the world is showing each human being as an enigma of its own. Socialization and education is never ignored as an important factor, but across that stays the mystery of existence, the unknown terrain of individuality. Reyels and her (obviously very talented) scriptwriter Marek Helsner show a life apart of easy causality, they are interested in situations — Hounds is the deconstruction and chronicle of family life, in which Lars functions as a medium in this breaking-test.

And they do this with a lot of wit and humor. What may be the biggest surprise of Hounds is it is a German film which is funny and its humor is never cheap, silly and infantile like a lot of other so called ‘German comedies’. This is a film of quality, stylistically close to some branch of the young Berliner Schule group of filmmakers, based in Berlin — Reyels, born in 1976, studied at the film school HFF in Potsdam — and combining this aesthetical earnest and ambition with a lot of fun and entertainment, a combination which brings to mind Maren Ade’s Toronto and Sundance success The Forest for the Trees (Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen) as well the grown-up and in the same moment over boarding comedies of French filmmaker Agnes Jaoui — which are for sure a bit more mature and self-conscious than Hounds. But the direction is the same and one could expect Reyels to go down that path. An important assistance to the great script is given by the well led actors, the performance of Josef Hader as Lars’ father is especially wonderful as is that of Judith Engel as his aunt.

On Christmas Eve the family situation of Lars is escalating. His mother comes back, accompanied obviously by a new lover, and soon realizes that her sister has moved in with her husband. The result is a unique mixture of comedy, tragedy and openness which has seldom been seen recently, and not just in German cinema.

Hounds is a family-comedy with weirdness and is disturbingly frank. It is an intelligent, very affecting work with an eye for realism and a heart for the lonely. One might as well call it a contemporary version of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise. Apart from its only weak point, a dissatisfying and a bit too easy ending, it is full of laconic, tight scenes. It is melancholic and full of lust, mixing a typical German romanticism with the raising of some universal questions of human existence: about relationships and new beginnings, about isolation and freedom, about language and nonverbal communication, about life and death.