On Pablo Hernando's "Berserker"

in 12nd Sevilla – Festival of Euopean Cinema

by Holger Römers

To the casual viewer Berserker might seem like just another by-the-numbers thriller. The opening sequence is, in any case, deceivingly formulaic: A woman wakes with amnesia. It soon turns out she killed her lover. And not only did she kill him, she also dismembered him, which the filmmakers take as an opportunity to come up with one of those macabre sculpted assemblages that are a hallmark of serial killer movies. Right after the medium close-up of a severed head crudely taped to a car’s steering wheel, this film, however, cuts to the protagonist schlepping a huge sack of potatoes. And when the young man gets home, he immediately launches into a monologue on the advantages that this lowly vegetable offers over equally cheap pasta as the main staple of a poor man’s diet. To contrast the most bizarre monstrosities with mundane banalities of daily life is, of course, in itself a well-established strategy of suspense movies. But Berserker playfully uses such contrast to subvert our expectations.

It goes without saying that the protagonist, a struggling writer named Hugo, becomes intrigued when he hears of the aforementioned murder. And the more he finds out about that case’s mysterious connection to other deaths and disappearances the more he naturally becomes obsessed with solving the puzzle. It is all the more surprising, then, to see how easily Hugo can be scared into giving up his investigation. It is the very lack of heroism that makes this character so believable and so likable. And it is the modesty and nonchalance of the script and the mise-en-scène that make this abstract thriller so enjoyable. When Hugo ultimately resorts to willful speculations to turn the crime series into a hackneyed mystery novel his musings can be read as reflections on the dilemmas any screenwriter faces when trying to come up with a satisfying third act. As smart as this self-referentiality is, it never seems brash, let alone pretentious.

This also applies to the film’s references to Spain’s ongoing economic and social crisis. Pablo Hernando, the director and screenwriter, alludes to the crisis by setting a couple of scenes in semi-deserted suburban wastelands that call to mind a housing boom gone bust. But he treats his protagonist’s financial troubles as specific problems that, at the same time, any viewer can relate to. It’s not only that Hugo isn’t cut out to be a bigger-than-life movie hero; the unsuccessful writer also has to grapple with the realization that he might never be able to make a living doing what he loves. Judging from this movie the 29-year-old Hernando should have no problems succeeding in his dream job. That he treats one of most bitter life lessons with such delicate irony is, in any case, a testament to his supreme talent.

Edited by José Teodoro