There are several starting points to Umsonst, a recent film by local Berlin director Stephan Geene, and likewise several endings. On the face of it, Umsonst runs as a film within a film where Aziza, a 20 year-old Berlin native, returns home after abruptly ending an internship at her father’s, in Portugal. She discovers that while away, her mother had sublet her childhood bedroom to Zach, a young New Zealander who arrived to the city for an indeterminate time period. Idealic at first, the renewed encounter with her mother soon veers into confrontation, leading Aziza to try and run away from home just as she came. This coming of age drama, spanning two days, is itself being shot as a local Berlin film production. In one of Umsonst’s several prologues, shot on a bridge connecting the boroughs of Neukölln and Kreuzberg, right off Maybachufer, we encounter the small film crew as they are lazily camped out on their outdoor location. The bridge is also the site of the film’s concluding scene.
Umsonst – a German word that translates as 'for free' or 'for nothing' (with the latter having been chosen for the film’s English title) – is constructed around a series of failed exchanges and transactions, geographical and otherwise, which will carry the two young protagonists across the bridge from Kreuzberg to Neukölln and back, dragging along tote bags packed in a hurry, as well as assorted objects and chance findings, such as a chair of uncertain origin or a fluorescent jacket freshly retrieved from the trash. In addition to this back and forth movement that underlies the main story line, Geene’s camera’s leads us along a familiar path across a very specific Kreuzberg Lebensraum: from the Schlesische bridge in the north on to Wranglerkiez and further south, through a Görlitzer park eternally steeped in bass drones and smoke, to the Wiener-, Ohlauer-, and Reichenbergstraße stretch; then across the Landwehrkanal to Maybachufer and the Turkish market, with its accompanying mini-Woodstock happenings on market days; from the northern edge of Neukölln – or Kreuzkölln, as the denomination sometimes goes – as far as Hermannplatz. This territory, rounded off from West by the urban jumble of Kottbussertor and the popular Admiralbrücke, provides the main of the film’s backdrop. Only twice does Geens venture outside it, once to the Tempelhoferfeld wilderness, and another time to a police station probably located across the Spree, in the borough of Friedrichshain.
As we too glide through this bubbly territory – a mixture of old-time Kreuzbergers holding on to a past glory of an anti-establishment posture, second- and third- generation migrant communities of Turkish and Middle Eastern origin, the various tourists, visitors, long- and short-term drifters and itinerant musicians, a population of African asylum seekers, and German implants from across the land; as we aimlessly wander through a neighborhood’s itineraries in summer, stopping for a pause by a sunny canal or to observe a summer’s everlasting sunset, the film increasingly hints at underlying tensions residing within. As to Aziza, the unresolved tension with her mother steadily rises. She runs away, spends an evening at a police station, due to a mishap bicycle clash; then tries to swap places with Zach, who in the meantime relocated to a couch in the kitchen of a Neukölln WG. Yet other than a confused torrent lashed straight at the camera towards the end of the film, her anger finds no outlet – not on the level of the interior plot, that is. It seems to transfer, mysteriously, to the lead actress on set; but there, on the plot’s exterior level, as we are about to witness a coming of age crisis erupt fully-blown, things are turned around and the 'real mother' is conjured on to the set – an older and far more assertive version of her fresh-faced, somewhat hysterical fictional self (Vivian Daniel). The ‘real’ suddenly breaks in on the scene of lazy indecisiveness; like some bourgeois specter from a Dahlem or a Zellendorf, she has come to end this artsy neighborhood-y charade.
Yet the two layers of reality are not as clearly differentiated at the film’s beginnng. The layered exposition, constructed of various scenes shot on the said Hobrechtbrücke and the nearby Turkish market, comes across as a series of 'making of' sequences that have inadvertently found their way to the final cut. The overlapping of the two arenas – that of filmmaking and dramatic construction – while expected, produces here something of a documentary gaze, to the effect that characters seem to enter the frame in the same nonchalance of a chance neighborly encounter. Whether static or on the go, Geene’s camera remains wide-open to capture such and other events – as it does the typical minutiae of everyday life in a prescribed zone: the manner of talk, dress, and further specificities (a rendition praised for its life-like accuracy by the local critique). But Geene, it seems, means to penetrate further, to capture the inner makeup of a local Zeitgeist, the endemic conditioning of a pervading mentality: a particular complex of hopes, wishes, dissatisfactions and rants. Zach, for example, in his early twenties, presents his life philosophy in a vocal inner monologue that binds together the delusions of grandeur of an unaccomplished artist with an ethos of utter passivity. Sitting on a bench in a park, after a long and thorough stroll through a local Turkish supermarket, from which he emerged with a bottle Cola Turka and a bag of crisps, he explains that he sees himself as something of a "nonmalignant outgrowth" in the body of society.
As rightly observed by Ulrich Gutmair, the choice of imbedding a markedly local narrative within yet another layer, which makes explicit the outer mechanism of filmmaking, is hardly an obvious one, given the choice of a documentary-like style of rendering. Addressing the uncanny realism of the dramatic portrayal, he writes: “Uncanny, since the characters loom so near to the viewer – despite the distancing effect at work here, which makes their story that of a 'film within a film' where both levels command an equally high share of authenticity”. No wonder, perhaps, that Geene’s filmic approach of a minimalist intervention finds its succinct expression in a few words uttered by the fictional director on set (Imri Kahan). Against the romantic glow of an arrested summer sunset, it befalls him to say: “Why should I turn off the light. Es geht von selber aus.”
Notwithstanding a hint of audacity here, this would-be manifesto no doubt contains the essence of a certain brand of filmmaking – if not an aesthetic. In the larger context drawn by Umsonst, however, they carry a further meaning, clearly alluding to the recurring theme as designated by the title: chance, precariousness, gratuitousness, redundancy, and lucky resignation. In one of the prologues preceding the plot, the camera follows Zack and a friend as they stroll through the shaded bank side passageway of the Turkish market. Their conversation, in English, covers the topic of bicycles: stolen ones that can be had for cheap on a nearby bridge, or such that lend themselves to spontaneous appropriation, en passant, since their rightful owners have failed to lock them – a negligence that implies, as the peculiar logic goes, that they’ve given up on them; however, owing to that same fateful logic, if they only happen to see them again, they are entitled to reclaim them on the spot. More than just an initiation talk to the newly arrived, on matters of know-how and etiquette, this is a covert discussion in ethics, where the topicalities of property and appropriation are weighted out against the entanglements of fate.
While bikes forever retain the status of prized possessions, the film features another class of objects likewise subject to occasional exchange – albeit such that are willingly disposed of. It is with the same near-philosophical regard that Geene observes the ubiquitous sight of objects left on sidewalks, near entryways and trash containers, sometimes with an ironic send-off message attached. From books to clothes to household items, this peculiar blending of in and out, of the domestic and public, while observable in many cities, is especially characteristic of Berlin in these areas, where items are sometimes launched outside neatly categorized and annotated. As an unofficial system urban exchange, it undoubtably attest to a city’s well developed culture of sharing, but it also stands, unavoidably, for an ongoing devaluation of material objects that are constantly disposed of, to make way for the new. Geene’s Camera is particularly attuned to these signs of a well-wishing circulation, but in fact of a disattachment and neglect – whether through the sight of a disorderly pile of clothes spilled on a street bench off Görlitzer park, or a couch dumped on a Neukölln sidewalk, ready to accommodate a lonely Aziza locked outside with nowhere to go.
In a way, the very character of Zach, too, emerged as a product of this casual economy of found objects: Elliot McKee, the young New Zealand musician who portrays him, was spotted by the director while playing his new-folk variety in situ, that is, by the canal. Just as his on-screen character, McKee arrived in Berlin with a one-way ticket, ready to capitalize on the city’s still open-ended possibilities. He appears here as the embodiment of a certain doe-eyed, anglicized bohemian charm, complete with the guitar that he drags along going from one improvised dwelling to the next (though for us film viewers, without ever playing it). The character of Zach, while thoroughly laid-back, manifests a keen interest in his new surroundings, which he is willing to absorb and discover ever so slowly, and passively, too. Zach’s boho chic – which we are led to believes is McKee’s own – is ingeniously constructed from thrift shop finds and chanced items, acquisitions that go hand in hand with his explicit ambition of staying outside the cycle of either producing or buying. From his hat and hairdo and down to his shoes and overall attitude of bemused politeness, every bit of him speaks the quintessential hipster – the kind that Berlin itself has never really had a hand in shaping, but rather in emulating.
While Zach is comfortable pursuing his chosen vocation of a Berlin drifter, Aziza – whose first name appears to owe little, if anything, to ethnic origin, indicating instead the multi-culti affinities of her now separated parents – is ill-prepared for the void that awaits her upon her return. Barely out of adolescence, Aziza strikes us as independent-minded, alert and lively, yet somehow insecure and maladjusted. Her talk is accompanied by agitated hand gestures that bring to mind and over-expressive sign language, as if to better clarify what she means to say. Forced to use English when communicating with Zach – who, to be sure, speaks no German at all, except a few words picked at random from a trilingual German-Turkish-English children’s book he found in her room – she resorts to quick staccato sentences whose syntax and straightforwardness is clearly derive from her mother’s tongue: “Lives Zach here?” she asks a flat mate of his when arriving at his new WG, in the hope he’ll agree to swap places with her and return to her mother’s (an exchange that, significantly, like several others in the film, fails to materialize). There is also the all-capital message she scribbles on the front window of a car that nearly ran into her: “I BURN YOUR CAR”. Aziza is played by the young Ceci Chu, also a Berlin native. Gutmair writes that she speaks “the way young girls in Berlin between the age of 18 and 20 do.”
Aziza catches up with her neighborhood pals on the Admiralbrücke, a location known for its summer-night, purely recreational sit-ins. (A relatively new phenomenon, which Geene says was his initial inspiration in attempting a greater panorama of the neighborhood.) Among them is Aziza’s closest friend Zeynab (Dilera Ilci), whose path in life seems far better delineated for her in comparison. Of Turkish background, she is employed in one of the street-level store-front offices that have recently sprung up in the area, small startups and multimedia firms that are gradually supplanting a dying commerce. Often encased behind large display windows, passersby are granted a full view of the work process that takes place within, of designers and programmers silently gazing at flat screens in chicly under-designed office environments. When Aziza calls on Zeynab during her workday, the glass window comes to signify the transparent wall between them, contrasting Aziza’s all-too palpable aimlessness with Zeynab’s own employment, which, despite the impalpability of its end products, signals one's successful integration in today’s work market.
Umsonst offers a Berlin capsule in the midst of change. The spell of a liberating big-city air lingers on, inspiring a life of non-commitment and creative pursuits – dictating them even – yet it becomes ever clearer that the underlying conditions have changed. Geene addressed this generational gap in his Indiekino interview: “At the time, when I was in my twenties… it was always also about putting together something on your own, whether clubs or art projects or whatever. Nowadays it all seems very different… To me, the main thing would have been this: 'I avail myself from any concerns about competitiveness or plans for the future,' which I find to be a very brave step to take, even when it’s done just as an experiment. Because even an experiment has its own time span, its own reality. Where I come from – that is, creative projects, activism – it become threatening after a while to keep going with no money at all. This latent threat, which you find in the film, is obviously intended, even if it’s not there yet in the same way for people in their early twenties.”
The changing conditions brought on by the current economic crisis where never neglected to be mentioned with reference to Umsonst. For Diedrich Diederichsen’s, this problematic lies exposed in the film's concluding scene, where he reads a younger generation's waning independence: “To make the most out of a life of drifting and uncertainty, to enjoy them as a form of freedom, one has to have had a protective environment to grow up in… behind so many filmic representations of vagrancy and transgression we recognizes the trace of an actor's bourgeois upbringing… but once they cross beyond that realm into unknown dangerous territory, even in the most liberal of circles, the parental authority will take measures and react fully. The child is then no longer free to pursue self-discovery, but rather a person they are invested in.”
Umsont's power, however, lies in insisting on the ambiguity between those two possibilities, carrying them through. To that effect, it makes no difference whether Aziza, as Umsonst’s main character, belongs to a protective realm as such, or whether she slowly drifts into a state of quasi-homelessness in her own home ground, displaced in a territory now overtaken by the 'international bohème", in the words of film critic Felix Stephan. The point of a realistic representation, if there is one, is its duality. It takes a dialectic to draw a picture of indeterminacy: its allures of freedom on the one hand, but also, as pertains the specific realm at the focus in Umsonst, how this indeterminacy inevitably reflects on human dealings at large, taking its toll, eventually, on human relationships.
Images courtesy of Stephan Geene / b_books