Saturday, October 15, 2011

VIFF 2011: “Der Preis (The Prize)”

They say you can’t go home again. German writer-director Elke Hauck explores this concept in her film Der Preis (The Prize), about a young German architect who returns to his old neighbourhood in East Berlin. Having won a prestigious design award, Alexander is commissioned to revitalize a Soviet-era apartment complex and oversee the project while it undergoes construction. The architect encounters old friends and acquaintances in the area, not quite comprehending that despite the disappearance of the Berlin Wall over twenty years ago, that this remnant of a bygone era has not only been forgotten in the future of Germany, but its inhabitants share that same malaise, too. It’s strange to think that the old spirit of Communism, now stagnant, has been sucked out of the area and replaced with … nothing much else.

Alex, in particular, has mixed feelings about the era. The film flashes back and forth, without explicitly stating it, to the architect as a young man growing up in the last years of the Iron Curtain. While he quickly climbed through the ranks of the Germany Free Youth, the Stalinist “friendship” group for East German teenagers, his best friend Michael was a punk who quickly fell out with Alex for being a conformist. Challenging authority and consuming more Western culture, Michael becomes increasingly more of a “threat” to the youth of their day. Then tragedy struck in their youth, in that same old apartment complex he has been assigned now, two decades later, to revitalize. Alex feels somehow responsible for what happened in the past and wonders if he could retreat in his mind in order to move forward, because he has never quite let go of the past.

Hauck’s film is framed and composed in the same locked-down spirit of the era. It asks of the country and in particular of Berlin: where have we come from? Where are we now? Where are we going, and with who? Is there a place in the vision of our country’s future for us? Is gentrification the way, or is it the natural enemy of organic growth and development? The film has a stripped-down look with no music score, and it is much stronger in the scenes taking place in 1980s East Germany, with a great sense of time and place. The realist touch removes the comic grandeur of the acclaimed East Berlin-era Goodbye, Lenin! and is as cold as Potsdammerplatz in January. That the production design looks as undistinguished in the present day as it was back in the Soviet era speaks volumes about stagnation and lack of progress. The film’s ultimate resolution is a bold declaration of how this particular section of Berlin responds to change. But will it ever?

The Prize also asks the question of survivalist instincts in a repressive regime. Do those who quietly conform really live, if they survive? And what of those who did not conform, and had a difficult time: did they have a better future when the Wall fell? These are certainly weighty questions to ask, and The Prize offers no easy answers. It will speak most profoundly to those who grew up or spent time behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, as they may see their own experiences reflected in Hauck’s representation (like, say, the wayward agnostic looking back at his time in Catholic school). It’s worth mentioning that in German, the phrase “der preis” can translate to either “prize” or “price”. I will leave it to you to weigh and consider this in light of the film upon viewing.

Elke Hauck’s Der Preis (The Prize) played at the Vancouver International Film Festival and has been present at several film festivals this year, including the Berlinale.