Stream It or Skip It?


Netflix movie Je Suis Karl is a story of our current moment, and possibly of the next one. Director Christian Schwochow’s political thriller blends realism with speculative fiction, showing how a teenage girl is manipulated, exploited and swept up by a white Euro neo-fascist youth movement. Escapism is clearly not the goal of this film, so those hoping to not be reminded of the precarious state of the world should look elsewhere, stat. For the rest of us, well, let’s see if it’s effectively chilling.

The Gist: We open on Alex (Milan Peschel) and Ines Baier (Melanie Fouche) as they connect with a Libyan refugee, Yusuf (Aziz Dyab), and smuggle him into Germany. Two years later, the Baier family is celebrating a bit of domestic bliss in their Berlin apartment: Teenage daughter Maxi (Luna Wedler) is home from school, and Alex gifts his and Ines’ two young sons with toy crossbows. Alex accepts a package from a courier, intended for his neighbor, brings it up, and heads back down to the car to fetch groceries when a bomb rocks the building. He’s thrown to the ground. He sees an injured bird struggling, dying. His glasses are coated with a layer of dust. A cloud surrounds the building as he eyes the devastation. Several floors decimated. Debris tumbles down. A massive hole in the building where his home used to be.

He’s in the hospital struggling to give a statement to authorities when Maxi opens the door. He’s shocked. He didn’t know she had left the building. Ines and the boys didn’t survive. Many of their neighbors died. We witness several lingering scenes of their extreme grief, loss and helplessness. They sleep restlessly. Attend a triple funeral. Get a new apartment, sparsely furnished. A wrenching scene in which they look over a roomful of items retrieved from the wreckage, find Ines’ scarf and one of the boys’ toys. Days go by. News headlines speculate on the perpetrator, jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions that it was Islamic terrorists. Maxi shows morbid curiosity as she eyes the bomb site: Construction equipment finishing the demolition. A memorial shrine on the sidewalk lined with flowers, totems, the victims’ photos. She’s recognized by a reporter, but when she declines an interview, she’s chased. She ducks into a store where a young man speaks kindly to her, gives her his jacket as a disguise. He also knows who she is. They end up having coffee together.

His name is Karl (Jannis Niewohner). He’s handsome and charismatic. They flirt a little, maybe. “We have to talk about the things that scare us,” he says with confidence and gentle assertiveness. He suggests she attend a “summer academy” in Prague he’s helped organize, for a group called Re/Generation. Maxi heads back to the air of depression at home, argues with her father, and ends up on a train for Prague. The “academy” is more like a conference. Everyone’s young, colorful, vibrant. Influencers, singers and speakers — Karl is among the latter — create an energetic buzz and hype up crowds with motivational slogans. “We are the new Europe!” is one of them. That, the quasi-nationalist iconography and the exclusively white attendees have us raising our eyebrows. But Maxi, well, maybe she doesn’t notice, maybe she doesn’t care, but surely she’s in a place and time when she’s vulnerable and susceptible to influence — and slow to notice she’s smack in the middle of a racist, fascist movement.

JE SUIS KARL NETFLIX MOVIE
Photo: Netflix

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Dennis Gansel’s The Wave and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon stoke similar narrative coals, telling stories about the first flames of fascism.

Performance Worth Watching: Although Wedler is asked to play a thinly rendered character who’s mostly raw nerves and extreme emotions, she and Peschel share many moments — some of them heartbreakingly silent — that communicate their grief and trauma with convincing intensity.

Memorable Dialogue: “That was yesterday — get over it.” — Karl shouts down a rallygoer who chants “Sieg hiel!” during one of his speeches

Sex and Skin: One soft-R-rated sex scene.

Our Take: Schwochow’s handheld cameras — and general rough-around-the-edges indie aesthetic — generate a feeling of immediacy that draws us in and keeps our attention, even when the plot defies plausibility and the characters tend to be one-dimensional instruments of the screenplay’s speculative scare tactics. For a child of parents who are leftist to the point of smuggling refugees over the border illegally, Maxi sure seems clueless about Karl’s worldview; he tells her, “‘Right’ and ‘left’ are terms that no longer exist for me,” and she’s the only one convinced by his spew.

Yet Je Suis Karl still functions reasonably well as an engaging narrative, stoking real fears and constructing its narrative around a bit of dramatic irony that keeps us interested, wondering if and how that bubble will burst. Sometimes, the film is a smeared and unfocused collection of scenes — Alex’s surreal dreams, Karl conspiring with his cohorts (notably to perform increasingly farfetched stunts), the love story that predictably emerges as Karl further manipulates Maxi into being the public face of his movement. But in its depiction of crowds swept into a white supremacist frenzy, the movie also functions as a cautionary tale of sorts, showing how rage and frustration can lead to untenable extremism. Its climax is nerve-wracking and suspenseful, whether you believe it or not, and it ends on an inconclusive note that surely intends to leave us unsettled. That’s where the realism feels truly real, and the speculation becomes more convincing.

Our Call: Je Suis Karl is a thoughtfully directed film, although it’s not always thoughtfully written, Schwochow elevating the endeavor slightly above the screenplay’s considerable weaknesses. That’s enough to say STREAM IT, at least for anyone’s who’s up for a movie that stirs enough credible unease to be not much fun at all.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.

Stream Je Suis Karl on Netflix





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