The topicality of “We Are Young. We Are Strong.” is hard to miss, which is a key reason why this worthy but over-obvious fictionalization of xenophobic riots in 1992 Germany will hit a nerve. Burhan Qurbani’s mostly black-and-white sophomore feature (after “Shahada”) is a by-the-book re-creation of the buildup to two nights of violent unrest in the eastern port city of Rostock, when Vietnamese immigrants became the target of disaffected residents unhappy with their own status in a recently unified Germany. Given current tensions with “the other in our midst,” the pic will undoubtedly gain traction at home following a late January opening. Euro screens may also beckon.
Like most areas of the former East Germany, Rostock suffered from a depressed economy and general malaise following the fall of the Berlin Wall, exacerbated by a not-unwarranted sense of alienation from the West. Qurbani’s strong suit is the way he captures the zeitgeist, showing the outskirts of the city, with their soulless late-Soviet-era housing blocks, as a breeding ground of hostility, especially against the Roma and immigrants, of which a sizable Vietnamese community was the most visible manifestation. The focus is on Stefan (Jonas Nay), a middle-of-the-road teen from neither left nor right, who’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, including brash Robbie (Joel Basman, swaggering far too much) and neo-Nazi Sandro (David Schuetter).
In a rather too pat attempt to create conflict and establish a ready-made psychological profile, Stefan is provided with an ineffective, straight-laced politico father, Martin (Devid Striesow), and no mother. As with “Shahada,” the director shifts between various groups, from Stefan to his father to Vietnamese immigrant Lien (Trang Le Hong), who’s living with her brother Minh (Aaron Le) and his pregnant wife, Thao (Mai Duong Kieu), and working at a laundry plant with Sandro’s g.f., Kathrin (Larissa Fuchs). Lien thinks that if she just keeps her head down, she’ll be able to make a life for herself in Germany, but her brother is less optimistic.
Things come to a head when a Roma community is evicted next to the immigrants’ housing block, and alienated youth like Sandro and Robbie are itching to flex some muscle. Meanwhile, the politicos are doing a lousy job of calming tempers, deciding it doesn’t serve their message to make a pre-emptive evacuation of the Vietnamese community. Stefan gets swept up in the adrenaline of it all, finally feeling some power, and one fateful night the animalistic mob storms the apartment building, with frightening results.
The pic is in black-and-white just before the attack starts, at which point Qurbani turns to color. If the florid device is meant to up the emotional impact, it falls flat, and the decision to intercut rampaging youth and terrified families with Stefan making love to his g.f., Jennie (Saskia Rosendahl) — a poorly developed character — lets the air out of the escalating tension. As Pat Benatar sang, “We are young. We are strong. Love is a battlefield.”
Nay’s performance as the confused Stefan, caught in the insecurity of the immediate post-Wall era, is one of the strongest elements of the film, along with Striesow’s repressed, cowardly father-politician. Neither are well served, however, by dialogue that leans heavily toward the didactic. The black-and-white lensing looks fine, with nice levels of saturation, but Yoshi Heimrath’s fluid camera can get awfully showy, too often calling attention to itself without enough justification.
The Rome fest print was 11 minutes longer than the running time listed for Rotterdam and Gothenburg, so if a cut has been made, it’s all to the good, since the original running time was certainly too long; flashes of an onscreen clock, presumably designed to heighten tension, merely called attention to the problematic pacing.