In his missionary zeal to oppose Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of the schizophrenic as “mass murderer or genius,” cognitive-science student-turned-helmer Hans Weingartner has come up with a scrupulous but generic portrait of the schizophrenic as Everyyouth. Not strictly speaking a Dogma film, Weingartner’s digitally shot first opus (winner of Germany’s prestigious Max Ophuls Prize) nevertheless shares much of the movement’s source-lit, handheld, out-of-focus aesthetic, here in the service of a docu-drama scenario where fiction is allowed only to simulate the “truth” about schizophrenia. Despite its hot-button subject in the Oscar-festooned wake of first “Shine” and now “A Beautiful Mind,” pic’s outlook outside fests and assorted educational venues seems limited, though it may find a TV or video niche.
Daniel Bruhl is center screen at nearly every moment as Lukas, an amiable 21-year-old country boy who comes to the city to live with his big sister, Kati. When Kati is late meeting his train, Lukas wanders lost around the Cologne station, as he will later wander lost through the university, abandoning higher education when the registrar’s office proves too difficult to find. Since his sister and her boyfriend spend all their time screwing, drinking and drugging, Lukas’ lack of focus passes unnoticed.
The first intimation that there’s something seriously off-kilter occurs on a date when he’s told that “Taxi Driver” isn’t playing that night and he launches into an angry, paranoid diatribe worthy of Travis Bickle himself. On the way back home from tripping on magic mushrooms in the park, Lukas’ normal fear of being in a wildly careening car driven by his doped-up sister quickly gives way to abnormal paranoia fueled by a cacophony of interior voices intoning a litany of hatred and denigration — all directed at him. Only somnambulism-inducing medication and the white noise of running water can keep the voices at bay, and the rest of the pic, much like its high-end alter ego “A Beautiful Mind,” explores living with what isn’t really there.
The filmmakers exploit digital video’s visual bag of tricks — endless variations in focus, color separation, color balance, digital breakup — to measure the level of distortion that Lukas is experiencing at any given moment: Sharp-focus, color-rich imagery implies relative sanity, while cubistic green-tinged black-and-white camerawork signals the opposite.
But it’s the track of interwoven voices that mimics the sensory overload of Lukas’ madness. It would help if his inner voices had coloration or personal resonance (though, to be fair, it’s impossible to fully judge the dense audio interplay from the necessarily simplified subtitles). But Lukas himself lacks specificity, both inside and out of his schizophrenia. If Lukas’ Jekyll is naive and unformed (“cool” is his reaction to just about anything), his Hyde is merely callow and nasty; neither is particularly interesting.
Bruhl’s boy-next-door DiCaprioesque good looks prove more compelling than any identity the actor can invent for a character with such broadly conceived paranoid symptoms that could belong to anyone.
With the exception of Anabelle Lachatte, who injects taut edginess and emotional immediacy into her role as Kati, the entire cast fails to clearly define the characters, only managing to look authentically aimless in their stitched-together bits of business culled from 130 hours of improvisation.
As for Lukas, it’s only in the scenes revolving around his workplace that the film finally gets specific enough to draw the audience into his madness. He finds a job at a factory full of mannequins and mannequin body parts. Asked to decapitate a rather fetching, long-lashed, sparkly eyed plastic female (shades of the fiery immolation of a curvaceous dummy effigy in Bunuel’s “Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz”), Lukas’ squeamish fascination finally makes his perceptual disorder seem concrete and renders it accessible to an audience of nonschizophrenic moviegoers.