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‘Axiom’ Review: A Perfectly Truthful Portrait of a Pathological Liar

Jöns Jönsson's second feature is a clever, increasingly uneasy tale of an affable young man's compulsion to self-invent that goes much further than the odd exaggeration.

'Axiom' Review: A Pitch-Perfect Portrait of
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Perhaps you know the feeling, the strange tingle of vertigo you get when you’re having an entirely normal conversation with an acquaintance, and you suddenly realize that for seemingly no reason — and often about the most inconsequential things — they are lying to you. Jöns Jönsson’s “Axiom,” a standout in this year’s Berlinale Encounters section, is physically set in a comfortably well-educated, middle-class Austrian environment. But its psychological terrain is discomfort. This is a fascinatingly perceptive film about casual falsehoods, compulsive fakery and crumbling facades.

Appropriately, then, it begins in an art gallery. Julius (Moritz Treuenfels, superb at being just that tiny bit off especially when he’s “on”) is a museum attendant, moving soundlessly from room to room, politely chiding visitors who take photos or drink from water bottles. What he doesn’t do, and what Johannes Louis’ deceptively anodyne camera never allows him to do, is fade into the background the way museum attendants should. You are always conscious of him there, maybe because he is always conscious of him there.

At first that just seems like a symptom of an entitled personality, an impression reinforced in the break room when Julius introduces himself to new guy Erik (Thomas Schubert). He is friendly, sharing tips with the quiet young man and offering him a coffee. But he is also supercilious in an almost imperceptible way; he doesn’t so much chat as hold forth.

It transpires Julius is about to go on a sailing trip with his friends, Lizi (Ines Marie Westernströer), Savo (Zejhun Demirov) and Jonas (Max Themak), who are a little nonplussed when he invites Erik to join them. As they trek through the woods toward the marina, Julius lets slip with a shrug that he is from an aristocratic background “on my mother’s side.” It seems like a eureka moment. That must be what this guy, and this movie, is about: privilege. It is, after all, a hell of a drug, and Julius could be a textbook case of the aggravating young white man high on his own supply.

But other notes have already sounded. Julius has postponed this trip on his family’s boat several times already, and when they arrive he throws a dramatic hissy fit that they haven’t all brought their own life jackets, threatening derailment once again. At just the moment they’re about to board, another dramatic incident occurs, which necessitates another cancellation and only now, 50 minutes in, does the title appear on screen. “Axiom”: a statement that brooks no contradiction.

Contradicting all that went before, Julius is back for a time in the orbit of his mother, Hannelore (Petra Welteroth), in his childhood home. It does not look very aristocratic, and Julius seems very uncomfortable there, around the people who know him best. By now we’re alert to the way Julius fibs and blusters, and have learned to distrust the colorful details that bedeck his stories. So it’s another surprise that what he tells his mother is true: He has met a girl, her name is Marie (Ricarda Seifried) and she really is a trainee opera singer. We watch her in rehearsal where her voice is sweet and strong but she’s having trouble emoting as much as her director would like. Ironically, Marie can’t really act, and it’s all Julius does. Still, they seem genuinely into each other, insofar as each knows who the other is.

“Axiom” is Jönsson’s second feature, and there are ways it could be tighter and more acerbic, particularly in the edit. The shooting style, by design, is as bland as Julius’ boyish face, but it could nonetheless be punched up — especially in the second half, when we already know his MO. But in its writing and acting, “Axiom” is exceptional, leaning into an unease that creates its own tension, as we read every gesture and expression. Watching Julius watching others becomes a kind of game, as we try to spot that extra intentness he displays when absorbing and retrofitting someone else’s experiences to become his own wry dinner-table anecdote.

But it isn’t a game. Julius’ reaction when caught in one of his deceptions is bizarre, showing just how deep his instability runs. His borrowed stories — about seeing a naked guy on the street, or eating an egg on a bus in Malaysia — are merely an expression of a far more worrying buried sociopathy, controlling him through compulsion as much as he tries to control the world through lies. This is a condition that cannot learn, even through threat of exposure: One near-miss interaction sees him respond with a terrible blankness, then carry on like nothing happened at all. Then again, perhaps that squirming fear of being found out is us projecting onto Julius; perhaps, for him, nothing has happened. Maybe the only people in the world not to suffer from imposter syndrome are the actual imposters.

‘Axiom’ Review: A Perfectly Truthful Portrait of a Pathological Liar

Reviewed in Berlin Film Festival (Encounters), Feb. 14, 2022. Running time: 112 MIN.

  • Production: (Germany) A Bon Voyage Films production in co-production with WDR and Arte. (World sales: The Playmaker, Munich.) Producers: Amir Hamz, Christian Springer, Fahri Yardim. Co-producers: Andrea Hanke, Birgit Kämper.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Jöns Jönsson. Camera: Johannes Louis. Editor: Stefan Oliveira-Pita.
  • With: Moritz von Treuenfels, Ricarda Seifried, Thomas Schubert, Petra Welteroth, Max Themak, Ines Marie Westernströer, Zejhun Demirov, Felix Tittel, Deniz Orta, Hendrik Kraft. (German dialogue)