Frieder Schlaich’s “Otomo” is not a cheerful watch: It’s a shocking portrayal of rampant racism in the depressingly fatalistic story of a black man’s life in Germany. Based on the scant information available about a 1989 news story that rocked Stuttgart, the film is a largely fictionalized reconstruction of the last day in Frederic Otomo’s life. Pic’s slow-walk-to-the-guillotine tone is likely to limit audiences to festivals, though German-speaking territories may have a more emotional response.
Liberian political refugee Otomo (Isaach de Bankole, in an extremely measured , dignified perf) is unable to find even the humblest job because of his color. Open prejudice is pervasive on the employment line, in his boarding house, in church. Even dogs bark at him menacingly. The rare souls who treat him like a human being seem like aliens themselves, out of sync with their world.
In its stridency, pic makes Otomo seem like the only black person in Stuttgart, which is a bit hard to believe. His unrewarding day suddenly explodes in a tussle with an ultra-racist ticket collector on the subway. After slightly injuring the man, he runs off without his documents.
Here a parallel story kicks in about cop Heinz (Hanno Friedrich), obsessed with capturing the “dangerous fugitive”to get a promotion. He and his nice-guy partner scour the town as if on a KKK hunt. Again, scripters seem to stretch their point.
Otomo’s encounter with liberal-thinking ex-hippie Gisela (Eva Mattes) and her little granddaughter takes the pressure off for a while, but tension builds again when the cops close in.
A careful, attentive director, Schlaich has an obvious bent for biography — his first feature, “Half Moon,” imaginatively traced fragments from the life and writings of Paul Bowles. Here he seems caged in by the real-life elements of his subject and even more by a need to underline the horrible consequences of racism.
Though he and Bankole avoid turning Otomo into an all-out hero or victim, the film’s message ends up depersonalizing him just the same. Ultimately, his story is reduced to the level of dramatized old news, complete with intercut newsreel footage from the time.
Cinematographer Volker Tittel’s pro lensing tends to a realistic look of somber, desaturated colors. Pic opens with a lethargic beat that reflects the slow rhythms of daily life, but speeds up somewhat as the action builds.