It's eat or be eaten for four cellmates in a German youth prison in "Picco."

It’s eat or be eaten for four cellmates in a German youth prison in “Picco,” a grimly realistic tale that slowly but surely wades into don’t-have-lunch-before-you-watch-this territory. Tyro scribe-helmer Philip Koch emphasizes how the daily grind of life behind bars slowly wears people down to their basest survival instincts. Despite the recent glut of strong prison pics, including “A Prophet” and “R,” this soberly shot and straightly acted downer should be able to corner some Euro niche action after strong fest play.

Though it shares some similarities (and thesp Frederick Lau) with Dennis Gansel’s 2008 Sundance entry “The Wave,” which sold more than 2 million tickets in Deutschland, Koch’s feature debut is more of an arthouse item, and will most likely appeal to auds slightly older than its under-25 protags.

Aloof Kevin (Constantin von Jascheroff)is placed in a cell already occupied by bully Marc (Lau), sensitive pill popper Tommy (Joel Basman) and go-getter Andy (Martin Kiefer). The arrival of the newcomer, or “picco,” puts the hierarchy of the cell’s microcosm again up for discussion, and Kevin and Tommy in particular need to battle for every inch of respect from their peers.

One-on-one sessions with the prison shrink (Jule N. Gartzke) — the only female present, as the boys crudely note — and the occasional visit from outside throw some light on the troubled histories of these kids, though the reason for each boy’s imprisonment goes unmentioned, essentially making them equals. Their at-times animalistic behavior as they try to establish a workable pecking order often proves more illuminating than any precise thing they say.

Koch’s screenplay slowly lets things come to a boil, with the rather dull daily routine of the pic’s first half initially only peppered with silly pranks and verbal abuse. But things grow progressively more violent. A prison rape witnessed by Tommy and Kevin sets the stage for a cascading series of events in the pic’s final 45 minutes that becomes increasingly unbearable to watch, though at the same time, von Jascheroff’s constantly riveting and surprisingly nuanced performance makes it hard to look away. As Tommy, Basman shows real range for the first time, while the characters played by Lau and especially Kiefer are more one-note.

The brutal ending is literally ripped from the German headlines, though the characters are fictional, with Koch using his protags to explore the poisonous effect of prison life on young criminals. Content-wise, pic doesn’t really add anything new to the prison-movie genre, though with a whopping 80% relapse rate in Germany for jailed young offenders, it does highlight a particularly pressing problem in a way that might serve as a wakeup call.

Technically, the film is modest but precise. Filmed in a recently closed prison that guarantees authenticity, Koch alternates fixed shots in the boys’ cell with Steadicam shots down the corridors and in the courtyard, underlining the fact that there is not a lot of room for movement anywhere. Consistently drab gray-green palette adds to the austerity.

Picco

Germany

Production

A Rezo Films release (in France) of a Walker + Worm Film presentation and production, in association with 40 Grad Filmproduction, Philip Koch Filmproduktion, HFF. (International sales: Rezo, Paris.) Produced by Philipp Worm, Tobias Walker. Co-producers, Claudia Enzmann, Andre Bendocchi-Alves, Koch. Directed, written by Philip Koch.

Crew

Camera (color), Marcus Eckert; editor, Andre Bendocchi-Alves; production designer, Jan Jericho; costume designer, Theresia Wogh; sound (Dolby Digital), Gunnar Voigt; stunt coordinator, Erhard Brehm; assistant director, Daniela Kerscher. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight), May 17, 2010. Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Constantin von Jascheroff, Joel Basman, Frederick Lau, Martin Kiefer, Willi Gerk, Jule N. Gartzke, Thomas Loibl.

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