At a time when right-wing politicians across Europe and America are stoking anti-immigrant sentiment in the general population, even the most classically straightforward study of outsider life can gain an urgent, of-the-moment resonance. So it is with “Marija,” a crisp, unfussy, morally nuanced portrait of a Ukrainian migrant worker doing what she must — and possibly what she shouldn’t — to get by on the unforgiving streets of Dortmund, Germany. An incisive, confidently unsentimental debut feature for writer-director Michael Koch, this steel-cut slice of life persistently avoids easy ethical dichotomies: Audience sympathy for its prickly, midjudgment-prone title character isn’t taken for granted, but the film’s tough, practically-minded humanity wins through. Following festival dates at Locarno and Toronto, “Marija’s” internationally relatable politics should help it with niche distributors and VOD platforms.
A Swiss-born filmmaker whose short film work has been much-gilded on the festival circuit, Koch makes little attempt to hide his debt to the Dardenne brothers’ school of social realism: “Marija” even opens with one of those brooding, bobbing, back-of-the-head tracking shots so heavily associated with the Belgian duo. Despite a handsome, disciplined aesthetic, Koch isn’t at pains to stand out stylistically. Rather, his debut distinguishes itself with the vivid particularities of its ethnography, shedding generous light on a still-underexposed world of overlapping immigrant factions in Germany’s urban fringes, where Eastern Europeans, Turks and other groups form a warily co-dependent social hierarchy of their own.
A brisk handful of establishing scenes make it clear that Marija Vitrychenko (Russian-German stage actress Margarita Breitkreiz, a quietly formidable presence) is loath to identify herself as a victim, however luckless her circumstances. Having escaped the greater economic hopelessness of Ukraine with her best friend Olga (Olga Dinnikova), she makes a meager living as a Dortmund hotel chambermaid, supplementing her income with petty theft from the guests’ belongings as she ponders opening a hair salon in the city — a modest dream that may as well be a flying-pig fantasy on four Euros an hour. Ratted out by a colleague, she responds to her summary dismissal not with tears or pleading, but by jabbing the informer in the thigh with a cafeteria fork; Koch and Breitkreiz repeatedly make it clear that even with her status hovering around zero, Marija is not a woman to be underestimated.
Still, with rent to be paid, Marija reluctantly agrees to work as an odd-jobbing assistant and sometime escort for her hot-headed Turkish landlord Cem (Sahin Eryilmaz, excellent), whose attitude to her turns on a dime from gauche affection to abusive chauvinism. She finds a smoother benefactor in Georg (Austrian star Georg Friedrich, recently seen to gentler effect in the festival hit “Aloys”), a persuasive German businessman who employs her as his translator and go-between in variously dodgy dealings with Russian contractors. In outlining these differently exploitative collaborations, Koch and Juliane Grossheim’s spare but tacit scathing script is as perceptive regarding the daily, thoughtless mistreatment of women within and across all social brackets as it is on the dehumanization of migrant workers by privileged nationals.
It’s among the most impressive feats of Breitkreiz’s rigorously controlled performance that it’s initially hard to tell just how mindful Marija is of the corrupt enterprise in which she entangles herself. Similarly, when she enters into an affair with Georg, it’s ambiguous to what degree she’s motivated by blind love, canny advantage-seeking or both. Breitkreiz’s striking face gives feeling away only with the subtlest of twitches — a discipline appropriate for a character used to not being regarded, who sometimes has to survive by being as impassive as possible.
Luckily for Marija, Bernhard Keller’s consistently well-placed camera has far more time for her, patiently observing her silent thought process in attentive closeup. Elsewhere, he and Koch shrewdly vary and manipulate their compositions in accordance with their hard-shelled heroine’s shifting place in society — until, in a seemingly throwaway but critical scene toward the end, her German scene partner is cut curtly out of the frame entirely. It’s not the first time “Marija” points out that the immigrant classes remain invisible only to those who choose not to look.