Director: Christian Schwochow (2015)
A mother and her young son escape from East Germany to West Berlin in this slow burning Cold War drama.
Though there are brief moments of sex and violence it avoids cheap action thrills and nurtures a furtive and paranoid atmosphere.
With a finely nuanced performance the charismatic lead Jordis Triebel heroically provides a great deal of the dramatic heavy lifting.
It also provides a textbook example of the use of costume in cinematic storytelling.
In 1978 Nelly Senff (Triebel) and son Alexei (Tristan Gobel) cross the border and check into the Marienfelde Refugee Centre.
Similar obstacles exist either side of the Wall to prevent the pursuit of happiness and Nelly finds the West’s bureaucracy as invasive as the East’s.
Though she’s funny, resilient and sharp, as Nelly tries to organise their basic needs such as accommodation and schooling, she finds it difficult to trust anyone.
What’s really holding Nelly back is her memory of Alexei’s much-travelled father. Doubts of how well she knew him are sown in her mind by a smooth American Embassy official John Bird (Jacky Ido).
Nelly’s paranoia increases when she believes she sees her long lost love on the street corner.
The cast are great though many supporting characters are under-explored as Triebel dominates the centre ground, talking a good fight and always suggesting she’s hiding her true thoughts.
Equal to Triebel in the importance to the film is costume designer Kristin Schuster. Her costumes are setting, character, mood and at key moments controls our gaze and sense of geography.
Clothing is seen as an extension of personal identity but is also a tool of the political machine.
As the border guards’ uniforms demonstrate political conformity, a boy’s scarf suggests indoctrination. Strip searches are a powerful means of humiliation and also used to validate one’s suitability to join society.
The many extras are dressed in suitably cheap and crumpled contemporary 1970’s fashion.
When a nondescript jumper is passed from boy to man it becomes a symbol of anointment representing love, loss and loneliness, the past and the future.
Costume also shows character development; the Nelly we see at the beginning of the film is very differently dressed to the Nelly at the end.
When we see Nelly for the last time her clothes reflect her view of the future, domestic role, economic status and political allegiance.
Carefully introduced prior to a crowd scene, the small Alexei wears a contemporary jacket with a yellow band across the shoulders. It’s vital in identifying Alexei from behind so we can follow him through a group of much bigger people.
It’s an a great example of how the less herald departments in movie-making are so important in contributing to the success of a film, especially in a thoughtful and character-lead movie such as West.