By Ali Moosavi.
The best kind of humour has roots in tragedy.”
Silver Haze premiered at the Panorama section of Berlin Film Festival. In most movie productions the starting point is a script (original or adaptation) or at least an idea expanded into a treatment. Sometimes a script is modified or re-written to suit a star. Silver Haze however is an outlier. Vicky Knight was a hospital healthcare assistant when she was discovered by writer-director Sacha Polak who gave her the lead role in Dirty God (2019), playing a mother who is the victim of a horrific acid attack. Ms Knight didn’t require much makeup to play the part as she had suffered 33% burns to her body from a 2003 fire in her grandfather’s pub. She was saved by a local man, who later died from the injuries he received. The cause of the fire was arson. This real background details of Vicky Knight’s life form the backbone of the story in Silver Haze, again written and directed by Sacha Polak. Knight’s burns are so conspicuous that a reason for them has to be included in the story. In Silver Haze she plays Franky, the victim of a pub arson 15 years ago who is filled with hate and a desire for revenge. She blames a woman for whom Franky’s father left her mother for. Franky believes that this woman was responsible for the fire too. Nearly all the characters in Silver Haze live miserable lives. Franky has a boyfriend whose only form of communication with her seems to be a terse “love you” after lovemaking. Her mother is ailing and she has to look after her. Her younger sister has a sex maniac for a boy friend whose only gift to her is VD.
Things need to change and they do. Franky dumps her boyfriend and starts a lesbian relationship with Florence (Esme Creed-Miles, who worked with Polak on the TV series Hanna). Her sister has a violent altercation with her boyfriend, after which she converts to Islam and starts wearing a hijab, to which Franky points and says, “I’ve covered my body for 15 years and you’re doing this out of choice!” Franky’s ever-present mood of misery and gloom does not sit easily with those around her; Florence call her a walking pity parade!
Polak has drawn out utterly believable performances from her whole cast. Vicky Knight is outstanding and there is no reason why she should not play a whole host of female roles which are not dependent on having a damaged body. Silver Haze is visually arresting and the choice of music is right on the money. The script however just does not have sufficient dramatic pull and could have also done with a little bit more injection of humour to balance the despair. The best kind of humour has roots in tragedy and it can even heighten the latter.
Also premiering in the Panorama section of the festival was The Teachers’ Lounge / Das Leherzimmer. Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) is a young teacher of Polish origin at a school in Germany teaching a class of twelve-year-olds. She considers herself idealistic and feels her duty to safeguard her students to the best of her ability. There has been a theft of some money from one of the teachers. The concerned teacher and a few colleagues start an investigation to find the culprit. They ask the two students who sit on a panel with teachers to inform on their classmates. Carla vehemently objects to this approach which to her reeks of methods used in her country during communist era and by autocratic governments. Suspicion falls on one of Carla’s students, who is of Turkish origin. This also smacks of racism. Though this charge proves unfounded, some of the mud thrown inevitably sticks. Carla takes it upon herself to find the real culprit so that the boy could totally and unreservedly be exonerated. She uses a hidden camera and though not entirely conclusive, appears to be successful in finding the real thief. However, the consequences of her action are far greater than what she bargained for. Her use of a hidden camera to spy on others is viewed by students as a Stasi-like tactic and she is particularly traumatized when her discovery has a profound negative impact on her star student. She also begins to have doubts on whether what her camera caught was conclusive – echoes of Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
Director Ilker Catak, who also co-wrote the script, creates more suspense from a small school incident that many a directors would from a case involving a serial killer. Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann’s camera follows Carla for the whole movie; sometime with a roaming hand-held camera and other times a static one. Marvin Miller’s continuous string based music also helps to maintain the tension. Underneath the suspense, Catak raises a number of moral and social issues and leaves judgement to the viewers.
The performances, both by the adult and child actors are terrific, with Leonie Benesch, who is on screen almost the entire film, outstanding as Carla. The Teacher’s Lounge may be a small film in terms of scope and budget but in cinematic terms it is a great film.
In Asaf Saban’s The Delegation, showing in the Generation section of the festival, a group of Israeli teenagers are taken for a tour of Auschwitz and Treblinka concentration camps in Poland. The visits to these camps stay in the film’s background while the foreground, and bulk of the movie is concerned with trials and tribulations of teenage years. Teenage love, sometimes unrequited, heartbreaks and all the questions and confusion that this group of teenagers face before going to the army for their mandatory national service. The concentration camp tour is designed to be quite immersive. In the evenings the grandfather of one of the boys, who is a holocaust survivor, recounts tales of his experience of that era; in the bus going to the sites they watch Schindler’s List, and so on. However the main emotional pull of the movie comes from the teenagers personal interactions and the concentration camp visits do not contribute the dramatic punch that one would have expected. But the traumas of teenage love is so well handled that they carry the film and the setting could have been in any country.
One of the tour leaders tells the group not to reveal any signs of being from Israel, and for that matter being Jewish, wherever they go in Poland. This is very surprising in this day and age and the reasons for this are not dwelled on. In fact one of the boys who decides to venture on his own hitchhikes to Auschwitz, getting a ride from an old Polish truck driver. When the boys tells the driver that he is from Israel, the driver invites him to his house and his wife prepares lunch for them. Later he shows the boy a video of Lemon Popsicle, a cult Israeli movie about a group of teenagers in the 50’s, more in tune with Porky’s than American Graffiti. After that he takes him to a synagogue where the town’s mayor welcomes him and takes a photo with him. In the evening a Polish girl upon knowing he is from Israel, becomes attached to him. Whether Asaf Saban wrote these scenes to say antisemitism no longer exists in Poland, is not clear.
Despite the setting, the scenes at Auschwitz, grandpa’s recounting of his war time memories, The Delegation is first and foremost a movie about the angst and anxieties of teenage years and as such it works; with or without references to the Holocaust.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).