The off-putting grotesqueries that appear during the opening movement of “The Poll Diaries” — including cranial surgery and a two-headed fetus — will likely serve as unfortunate distractions from a genuinely thoughtful, deeply moving film about dualities, desire and mortality. Set on the eve of WWI, this third feature by German helmer Chris Kraus is seen through the eyes of an adolescent Oda Schaefer, the famed German poet, whose opening soliloquy on the transience of life makes the film’s final moments doubly disturbing. Arthouse exposure could be forthcoming.
It is 1914, and Oda (Paula Beer), only as old as the century, travels by train from Berlin carrying two gifts — her mother’s body, in a coffin, and that two-headed fetus, in a jar. They are to be delivered to her father, Ebbo von Siering(Edgar Selge), a sort of defrocked doctor and academic, whose theories about biology and destiny have made him persona non grata among German scientists; when he hastens the death of a wounded Estonian anarchist so he can bisect the fighter’s bullet-ventilated brain, we know all we need to know about Ebbo’s fundamental view of human life. What we learn about Oda, as she is exposed to the gory and bizarre, is that she possesses an innate scientific bent, coupled with genuine humanity.
That humanity isn’t easy to maintain, given all that’s going on: Anarchists are on the loose and Russians soldiers are billeted with the family. Her father’s second wife, Milla (the fine Jeanette Hain) has no time for Oda, preferring to play hostess at the family’s deformed dacha. The house is among the many dichotomous constructs that dot “The Poll Diaries” — the sacred and the profane, war and peace, Ebbo’s callous crackpot science and Oda’s pure curiosity and kindness, especially toward wounded anarchist Schnaps (Tambet Tuisk), whom she rescues and nurses back to health.
Despite his condition and politics, Schnaps provides an oasis of peace in Oda’s disordered domestic life. Her stepmother is having an affair with the estate keeper, Mechmershausen (Richy Muller); her father is failing in his attempts at professional rehabilitation; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been shot, and although war has yet to be formally declared, the tensions become evident through language — the local Estonian; Ebbo’s the cultured German of scientist Ebbo; the Russian of the soldiers, who are loyal to the czar. Oda’s wish to flee her crazy surroundings — to go with Schnaps wherever he’s going — mirrors a larger desire to flee a world on the verge of insanity and transformation, one where virtually all nationalist traditions will soon be dissolved.
Young Beer, who was only 13 when the film was shot, is a real find, as is veteran screenwriter and opera director Kraus. He doesn’t construct the tidiest narrative; his endings are all over the place. But the core of “The Poll Diaries,” despite all those laboratory oddities, is sincere and poetic.
Tech credits are tops, especially Heinz K. Ebner’s soundwork.