An arrestingly broken-backed story structure offers more surprises than the story itself in “Zurich,” Dutch helmer Sacha Polak’s grim but glisteningly crafted sophomore feature. Confirming the promise of her remarkable 2012 debut, “Hemel,” without quite advancing upon it, this bisected study of a young woman cast adrift — physically and psychologically — by personal tragedy unfurls its tale of woe in furtively nonlinear fashion, but it shouldn’t take viewers long to surmise the root of her trauma. Still, Polak’s formal nerve and frankly feminine perspective just about retrieve this Berlinale Forum selection from the realm of artsy miserablism. Distributors may regard “Zurich” with a degree of Swiss neutrality; festival programmers, however, are likely to reach out.
Despite alluring outward trappings and strong reviews that pitched it as a feminist spin on Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” “Hemel” received less international exposure than it deserved. With a less immediate premise and a none-too-evocative title (which does not refer to the geographical location one might assume), “Zurich” could struggle to match its modest success. Yet it does confirm and consolidate Polak’s distinctive directorial identity: Despite a switch in cinematographer (with Frank van den Eeden replacing Daniel Bouquet), the film’s striking aesthetic — with starkly sculpted compositions and hot-cold color contrasts counterbalancing the narrative grime — is pleasingly consistent with that of its predecessor. However, an abstract opening tableau, incorporating a waterlogged car and a live cheetah, strikes a note of teasing surrealism that the film never revisits.
Polak follows this bold introductory gambit with a title card declaring the commencement of “Part Two” — at which point viewers would be forgiven for diagnosing the proceedings with an especially perverse case of pretension. Happily, screenwriter Helena van der Meulen (who also penned “Hemel”) does honor the chronology of what turns out to be rather an elegant structural gimmick. Cause follows effect in its detailing of how, and how far, Dutch drifter Nina (Wende Snijders, whose hardscrabble vulnerability brings Toni Collette to mind) has veered off the rails. If subsequent revelations don’t surprise as much as they’re probably supposed to, they nonetheless complete a thoughtfully shaded character study.
Nina cuts a near-impenetrable figure at the outset: Wandering the motorways and service stations of central Europe, falling into violent sexual altercations with passing truckers, she appears bent on self-destruction, taking little evident pleasure in her ostensible hedonism. It gradually emerges that she’s in mourning for her boyfriend Boris — a truck driver who appears to have committed suicide — and a child, whose fate is initially harder to determine. Ample clues to Nina’s personal history emerge in the affectionate but unstable relationship she forms with kindly, burly Matthias (Sascha Alexander Gersak, excellent), a divorced German trucker with two children of his own. The compensatory mirroring is clear enough to render Polak’s occasional flourishes of foreshadowing (or post-shadowing, to be more accurate) unnecessary: Auds hardly need a shot of Nina brushing a pregnant stranger’s belly to identify the internal void.
“Zurich’s” second half — “Part One,” naturally — is even less oblique, tilting into outright melodrama as Nina’s backstory comes fully into focus. Still, these sudsier passages retain their emotional traction thanks to the anguished intensity and integrity of Snijders’ hard-driving performance, and the script’s refusal to soften the character’s most jagged edges: As in “Hemel,” Polak and van der Meulen project a refreshingly candid, assertive understanding of female sexuality, with little of the moral adjudication applied even by some notionally progressive filmmakers to their characters’ carnal impulses. Late in the second half, as certain peripheral characters come into their own, the film shifts perspective to jarring effect; it works best as a one-woman portrait.
Even at its lowest tonal ebb, “Zurich” looks exquisite, with van der Eeden employing a rich, oily palette of ochres, turquoises and multiple shades of storm cloud. Polak has a true gift for tingling tactile detail: Even the gentlest rustle of sequins on a party dress takes on a kind of sense-memory significance in this cinematic context. The film’s sonic detailing is suitably ornate, though the choral blasts of Rutger Reinders’ score, while narratively integrated, are a little on the oppressive side.