"Karger": The Challenge of a Character By Henrik Uth Jensen
in 42nd Karlovy Vary Film Festival
With her feature debut Karger German director Elke Hauck (born 1967) has made a film that is difficult to like. That is not to say it is unlikeable. Instead it poses a challenge to the spectator.
Realism has many faces, and at first sight Karger seems firmly grounded in the recent tradition of German cinema to make authentic dramas shot on location with non-actors. If the non-imposing style resembles that of the Italian neo-realism, it is stripped of sentimentality and ideological pretensions. The social and political reasons for the crisis weigh less than the psychological reasons.
Karger is a film about a man who loses everything, his family, his father, his job, his sense of home, in short, everything that makes his life bearable. But no matter what hits him, he never reacts, he never evolves. Don’t be fooled. Elke Hauck knows exactly what she is doing, and what might seem undramatic is something entirely else.
New German Realism could be seen as an effort to look behind the surface to reveal the inner mechanics of the character. But Elke Hauck’s special kind of realism is based on the characters’ lack of motivation and direction. Whereas it is easy to engage emotionally with a film like Valeska Grisebach’s Longing (Sehnsucht), Karger goes further. With great confidence the documentary trained director blocks all access to her characters’ inner life to create a sort of anti-drama.
We just grew apart. The finalization of divorce at the beginning of the film is painful to watch. The judge handling the procedures gets her authority by an electric amplification of her voice. The microphone makes it impossible for her to transcend her given role, when she afterwards privately asks them their motivation for the split. The camera rests on Karger’s ex-wife Sabine (Marion Kuhnt) looking down, then right at Karger. Cut to Karger shortly lifting his eyes in the direction of the judge before adressing his ex-wife, that he’d love an answer to that question as well. All attention is on the ex wanting to say something reasonable. After a few false starts she offers the judge: “We just grew apart.”
After leaving the office Sabine gives Karger a lift to his new apartment. He invites her up to see it and after a brief disagreement they engage in sex, dispassionately. This sums up the arbitrariness of every action which seeps through the entire film. This is Karger’s view of a world turned hostile. His wife has left him, his father is dying, the steel plant where he works is gradually shutting down. Still Karger’s instinct leads him to the bars and the discotheques where he finds solace for his sorrows. A waitress sees him as a potential new father for her sons, but beneath his tender gestures there is no real sign of emotion. For Karger every possibility fades from an initial “Why not?” to a self-defeating ‘Why?’
Throughout the film Karger never evolves. He is exposed to possible solutions to his many problems, but he never responds to these. In that way Jens Klemig’s performance in the lead is congenial. There is no sense of acting, only a reluctant expressionless presence emphasized by Patrick Orth’s cinematography with mostly immobile framings interjected with a few discreetly handheld situations choreographed to look completely natural never straying from the center of attention.
Elke Hauck who has worked previously as assistant director on Jessica Hausner’s Hotel , exposes and transcends the limits of drama by inviting the viewer to approach Karger the person and Karger the film with the same disinterested spirit as her subject. Though probably few will take up the invitation, Karger was definitely one of the highlights in the competition in Karlovy Vary.