Crushed dreams and loss of stability following the collapse of the Berlin Wall are the main themes of Andreas Dresen’s disappointing “As We Were Dreaming,” a hard-edged drama about a group of friends coming of age just as the Cold War ends. Stuffed to the gills with fights, strobe lights and anarchic energy, the well-played pic feels like a late arrival in a long line of movies from throughout the former Eastern bloc covering similar ground. Dresen certainly knows his East German grunge, yet the unnecessary voiceover, frequent flashbacks and stereotyped female characters play like a film from at least 10 years ago. Sales outside German territories may be a battle.
Noted scripter (and Dresen collaborator) Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s adaptation of the award-winning Clemens Meyer novel apparently streamlines some of the book’s more freewheeling elements while staying true to the author’s main protags and their asocial struggle to find a place in the degraded atmosphere of post-Wall Leipzig. Even as a 13-year-old in the late 1980s, Dani (Chiron Elias Krase) was the responsible kid, looking after his friends while they all recited socialist anthems, imbibing the lessons of late Soviet-style communism. Four years later, they’re unmoored teens in a depressed economy facing an uncertain future.
Apart from Rico (Julius Nitschkoff), who wants to be a boxer, none of the band of buds express a desire to be something when they grow up. Dani (Merlin Rose) continues to be the reliable glue for the posse, with Mark (Joel Basman) the extra-wired anarchist, Paul (Frederic Haselon) the lovelorn carjacker, and Pitbull (Marcel Heuperman), a solidly built sidekick. A run-in with a bunch of skinheads inevitably leads to problems when the friends decide to start an underground disco.
Dresen pushes the sense of chaos with joyride sequences full of random destructiveness, and nightclub scenes accompanied by the usual loud, driving beat and deeply annoying strobe lights. It all feels old-hat, which is perhaps the point given that it’s set in the early 1990s, yet re-creating the time period and making it feel like a fresh cinematic experience are two different things. The drawing cards in Dresen’s previous films, including but not limited to smart dialogue, savvy characterizations and solid structure, are less in evidence, and while the gritty realism is there, it’s compromised by too-predictable plot elements and facile psychologizing.
From the opening scene, when Dani finds Mark strung out on heroin in an abandoned cinema, viewers know they’re in for the chronicle of a downward spiral. Tension with the skinheads forms a key element, especially since Dani has the hots for a girl nicknamed Starlet (Ruby O. Fee), who turns out to be the main squeeze of their chief antagonist. Alcohol, drugs and a general feeling of semi-lawless stagnation permeates everything and acts like a straightjacket, preventing any of the pals from moving forward.
Family members are largely nonexistent or, if included, typecast in the “hard-working single mom who’s never around” vein. Starlet’s motivations are a mystery, her role largely limited to that of a fantasy figure who teases and disillusions in equal measure. A bizarre scene in which Dani eludes attackers by seeking refuge in the apartment of a woman who turns out to be a horny housewife presumably is meant to express the repressed longings of the average Leipziger of the era, but it’s simply ridiculous.
Performances are all strong from this band of up-and-coming actors, who uniformly exhibit the required vivacity, yet one longs for something more original in their roles. Bold, flashy chapter headings, like “Murder in Germany” and “Thunderstorm in the Brain,” chop up the narrative even more than the flashbacks but add significantly less to the story, which at times strives for the kind of hoodlum-friendship drive of a Martin Scorsese movie.
Dresen’s longtime d.p. Michael Hammon delivers appropriately vigorous camerawork without, thankfully, trying to match movement with energy. Scenes set in the early ’90s are considerably paler in tone than the more saturated hues of the late ’80s, handily differentiating the two time periods. Leipzig is seen as a wasted landscape of neglected buildings, dark streets and overall abandonment.