What is Our Life but Gambling?

in 28th Moscow International Film Festival

by Larissa Leonid Malykova

Strange as it may seem, gamblers of all sorts have turned out to be the main characters in the programme of the Moscow International Film Festival. The corrupt police officer Andreas from the Greek entry The Wake (Grypnia) is playing with justice, gambling on his life, which leads to a tragic payoff. The aging Amelita from the Philippine entry The Bet Collector (Kubrador) by Jeffrey Jeturian is a commissioner in the illegal lottery business. The immigrant Sebastian from 13 (Tzameti) by Gela Babluani gets into the dangerous world of people playing Russian roulette for money. In the German film Running on Empty (Der Lebensversicherer) by Bulent Akinci all characters are playing an all-or-nothing game with their lives. In all those films life itself is at stake.

At first sight it seems that the insurer Burhard Wagner can hardly have anything to do with gambling. He talks his customers into getting insured against all kinds of hazards. He is out for a prosperous and happy life, and the rustling of the rosy sheets – the policies in his hands – is the music of hope, the promise of happiness and well-being in his family, the well-beloved family he has time to have contacts with only by means of a telephone answering device. So far he is compelled to live in his car, to make up with fast-food, and to have his clothes cleaned at the roadside dry-cleaner’s for an agent insuring someone’s life has to produce a good impression on his customers. Oh, Burhard is a true artist, he can easily gain his customers’ confidence and find their deeply hidden fears, complexes and dreams. If necessary he will sing and dance for his customers. He even makes hints to one of his customers as to how one can end days and let the family get the insurance money. The sacred folder with the rosy sheets from his customers’ policies is getting thicker. Closer and closer is the moment when he’ll be able to regain his family, his home and himself. There remains a question though – where is his home, where is Burhard himself? Will the endless tape of a road, this lonely ‘life insurer’ is driving along, ever let him go? Where shall he go if one can’t see the goal? Watch the road signs, try as much as you can; the ‘Out’ sign is nowhere to be found.

With Running on Empty presented at the Moscow Festival film director Bulent Akinci is making his full-length feature film debut, and a very successful one at that, although the film leaves a very pessimistic impression. If only because behind the routine details of an insurance agent’s life meeting his unfortunate customers – most of them déclassé, thrown out on the roadside by prosperous society – one sees a metaphor. The lack-lustre clerk with greasy hair, this life-saver, turns out to be a Death Angel, and meeting him bodes ill. The every day life details take an ominous tint. In the darkness, drowned in incomprehensible sullen roaring, the water stream merges with the earth and the sky. Purgatory? No, no. It’s just a car wash the insurance agent is getting through. And here are dummies stuck to their cars… well, it is just people refuelling their cars. Reality is frowning, its features taking an infernal look. The routine life psychological drama crosses the borderline of inexplicable suspense. Recalling Camus one can say: “Hell is not others, hell is us.”

The polyphonic main character as performed by Jens Harzer is the revelation of the film. He is truly ambivalent. The actor manages to brilliantly render this state of mind of a hunted down, lost soul.

The German film director of Turkish descent, Bulent Akinci, has made a sombre and desperate road-movie devoted to the problem of loneliness. This, at first sight, trivial story of a road leading nowhere with stops offers deep philosophical questions dealing with the meaning of existence, values of life, the true and the seeming. The main character meets a specialist in fakes: brandies, cigars, wines, and perfumes, they are all fakes, they look real, but cost nothing. Burhard didn’t notice when all of his life had turned fake. The gambler gets lost while gambling. The lack of self-confidence, and a professional push, gives way to fears and doubts. Burhard’s eyes don’t glisten any longer. They are filled with anxiety of a philistine who has lost the meaning of life, almost with madness. May he have turned into a road-ghost? The initial aim of making money to ensure the well-being of his family has got lost in thin air somewhere behind the yet another turn of the road with the endless traffic strip…