San Sebastian Film Review: ‘Beyond Words’

A Polish-German lawyer's well-hidden identity crisis gradually emerges in Urszula Antoniak's emotionally distant character drama.

Urszula Antoniak
Jakub Gierszał, Andrzej Chyra, Christian Löber

1 hour 27 minutes

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6100122/

At a time when the world is more consumed than ever by the intricacies of immigration and expatriation, there’s a strange, conflicted privilege in being what one might call an invisible immigrant: one who blends so well into the social majority of their adoptive country that few might immediately identify them as an outsider, but still lacks the born-and-breds’ sense of personal security and belonging. That’s a quandary rarely addressed in contemporary cinema, so credit to Polish-Dutch filmmaker Urszula Antoniak — who has first-hand understanding of her subject — for articulating some of its trickier subtleties in her muted, stringently composed fourth feature “Beyond Words.” Complex identity politics don’t, however, necessarily make for compelling dramatic stakes in this slender story of a high-flying Berlin immigration lawyer hesitantly confronting his Polish birth roots after his estranged father makes an unexpected reappearance in his life.

Shot in crisp, gleaming monochrome by Lennert Hillege and steadied by rising Polish star Jakub Gierszał’s quiet conviction in the lead, this is typically stern, studied fare from Antoniak — closer to the low-key humanism of her 2009 festival-smash debut “Nothing Personal” than the outright provocation of 2011’s “Code Blue,” even if a questionably judged final reel flirts with something more abrasive. Yet it’s hard to invest much feeling in its protagonist Michal, a chilly, wet-behind-the-ears suit who comes across as Patrick Bateman with skin-deep human-rights credentials, and keeps his most interesting issues to himself until the very end. Antoniak’s spare script doesn’t probe too deeply into his ruptured psyche, meaning much of “Beyond Words” falls in a curious tonal middle ground between earnest and ersatz.

We meet Michal as he’s considering — and ultimately brusquely rejecting — the case of a refugee African poet seeking sanctuary in Germany. Despite having once had to similarly make a new life for himself in the country, Michal admits no empathy with the black man’s situation. Handsomely Aryan in appearance, with an effortfully spartan apartment that offers few clues as to the life inside it, he presents himself as fully assimilated into the culture and population of his new, chosen homeland — though his equally glib German boss Franz (Christian Löber) appears to be his only friend. Even the attractive waitress (Alina) who has rather miraculously developed a crush on our man — or perhaps just his lustrous hair — is cold-shouldered for being too Polish, which is as good as it gets for women in a story preoccupied with various clashing strains of toxic masculinity.

Michal’s Polish past comes literally knocking, though, when his disheveled father Stanislaw (Polish veteran Andrzej Chyra), long presumed dead, shows up his doorstep — how so, and why, both on the list of questions that go unanswered through the pair’s halting, taciturn exchanges. A failed musician and former punk, Stanislaw is a craggy apple tree from whom his starched-collared son couldn’t have rolled any further: “You wanted to be a lawyer and became that,” he observes to Michal, and it’s hard to tell if he means it as a bemused compliment or a passive-aggressive show of disappointment.

“Beyond Words” isn’t so simplistic as to position Stanislaw as his son’s earthier, freer alternative self, though it’s hard to tell what exactly he is: Chyra projects some ragged life into his underwritten part, but both men are equally inscrutable in their characterization, as if neither has grown fully in the other’s absence. Antoniak’s script keeps their motivations mutually opaque, and their relationship not fully defined or credible: If not for a couple of shared scenes with third parties, we might question whether Stanislaw is a guilt-induced figment of Michal’s imagination. Considering the slick, slippery nature of the role, it’s to Gierszał’s considerable credit that we glean even that possibility from his character’s shrouded inner life.

That said, even the actor’s most conscientious efforts struggle to sell the drastic narrative pivot of the film’s final act, in which Michal faces up to his outsider status in alarmingly confrontational fashion. It’s a comprehensive breakdown, in all senses, of an individual identity crisis, but also an ambitious nod to European interracial tensions that rings a little hollow in the compressed denouement of a film where no non-white character is more than a symbolic presence. Suddenly the refined black-and-white imagery of “Beyond Words” risks seeming overly on the nose; if so, at least this well-intentioned but remote film is finally getting direct with its audience.

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San Sebastian Film Review: 'Beyond Words'

Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Official Selection), Sept. 27, 2017. (Also at Toronto Film Festival — Contemporary World Cinema.)

Production: (Poland-Netherlands) An Opus Film production in co-production with Family Affair Films, EC1 Lodz - The City of Culture. (International sales: Global Screen, Munich.) Producers: Piotr Dzięcioł, Lukasz Dzięcioł, Floor Onrust, Noortje Wilschut.

CREW: Director, screenplay: Urszula Antoniak. Camera (B&W, widescreen): Lennert Hillege. Editor: Milenia Fidler.

With: Jakub Gierszał, Andrzej Chyra, Christian Löber, Justyna Wasilewska.

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