A feeling of instability hovers over “Fools,” a disturbing feature debut from talented helmer Tom Schreiber. Story uses the taboo-breaking Carnival festivities in Cologne, Germany, to create a mood piece commenting on the rigid boundaries of the German character. With a strong central performance and unsettling DV-to-35 lensing, pic should appeal to fest audiences looking for dark fare.
Roman (Christoph Bach) starts a new life and job near his increasingly senile grandmother (Hannelore Lubeck). A lonely young man ill at ease in the world, his first days coincide with the spirited madness of Carnival, when city streets become surreal landscapes of costume-clad revelers. A dummy, representing the bad of the year and serving as a sacrificial scapegoat, is dangled by its neck outside Roman’s window, heightening his already uncertain grasp on reality.
At a party with co-workers, he witnesses a theft, and gives chase along with two burly court jesters. When the men catch up with the thief, they savagely beat him while a helpless Roman is restrained from tempering their violence. On returning to the party, Roman meets Stella (Victoria Deutschmann), and for the first time succumbs to the behavior-modifying anarchy of Carnival, taking her home, where they have sex.
When he wakes, Stella is gone, but her unflushed feces left in his toilet become a talismanic representation of their night together, and he refuses to part with the only piece of her that remains. The passage of time is deliberately confused, and it becomes difficult to be sure how many days are passing. The single fixed point of affection in his life is his grandmother, but her dementia fuels his, and her death starts a quickened descent into insanity.
Bach’s portrayal of a man painfully uncertain of how to escape his solitude and slowly losing grip on reality is a beautifully sustained performance, and his resemblance to a young Robert De Niro is striking. Helmer uses Carnival as a means to explore the limits of accepted behavior and its effect on repressed individuals, with obvious analogies to the German psyche. Accomplished hand-held camerawork, especially in the street scenes, adds to the suffocating sense of panic Roman feels when wandering the city.