Based on the main character’s 1950s-set autobiographical novel, vet filmmaker Radu Gabrea’s “Red Gloves,” a detailed re-creation of interrogation techniques that cause a confused young man to betray friends and even his own brother, rings absolutely true. Gabrea, himself held as a political prisoner, perfectly reproduces the rhythms and choreography of intimidation and brainwashing. But insufficiently explained key background elements and the failure of lead actor Alexandru Mihaescu to invest his necessarily unformed character with sufficient presence may keep “Gloves” from the relatively wider play enjoyed by the helmer’s Holocaust-themed work.
A member of Romania’s German-speaking Saxon minority, Gabrea’s hero Felix Goldshmidt (Mihaescu), suffers from unspecified psychological anxiety. He leaves the mental institution in which he is being treated, and returns to the university where he’s studying, only to be arrested by authorities. Targeted less for any in-depth insider knowledge than for his emotional vulnerability and suspicious heritage (all ethnic minorities were regarded as suspicious in the Hungarian Revolution’s aftermath), Felix proves more susceptible to his interrogators’ powers of persuasion than they ever could have imagined.
Based on an autobiographical novel by Eginald Schlattner, the film paints Felix as an idealist and fledgling poet, carried away by abstract concepts of transcendent truth that could apply to a wide spectrum of ideologies; he hardly grasps the real world — one suspects he might just as easily have become a Hitler Youth if born a couple of decades earlier. Human relationships also loom mysterious for him, a confusion exacerbated by his repressed homosexuality: He loses his girlfriend (Ioana Iacob) through his inability or unwillingness to sleep with her, but also rejects the overtures of a handsome blond fellow-poet (Peter Nitzsche) with whom he shares a bed.
Lacking understanding of realpolitik, of why he’s been arrested or what his captors want, he fails to notice that his cellmate (Andi Vasluianu, excellent), a young worker imprisoned for appropriating his boss’ bottle of vodka, is surreptitiously if reluctantly scribbling notes on everything he says. Felix’s cluelessness plays into his captors’ hands, increasing the effectiveness of their demoralizing techniques, including sleep deprivation.
At first he resists, casting himself in the role of the valiant defender of truth. But gradually the unaccustomed hardships rattle him into obeying blindly, signing transcripts of testimony without reading them. The true coup is administered by Major Blau (Udo Schenk in a tour de force perf), a German-speaking Jew whose genuine revolutionary idealism and utopian vision, delivered with paternalistic military authority, soon have Felix giving authorities much more than he intended.
When self-awareness finally dawns, it sends Felix to new depths. Unfortunately the character is played like such an egocentric blank slate that his transformation lacks tension, unfolding more like a behavioral psychology experiment than a human drama.
Though the pic is awash in minutely observed detail, it remains largely literal. The prison never registers as especially claustrophobic.