Berlinale 2021: Je Suis Karl

This one is juicy, folks!

Maxi is a teenage survivor of a terrorist attack that blew up her building, killing her whole family save for her father. Maxi (Luna Wedler) and her dad are grieving separately, her father consumed by guilt and doubt and obsessed with keeping his family’s memory alive, leaving Maxi to mourn alone, and drift apart.

Maxi is still a kid herself, and very vulnerable, so we’re not terribly surprised when she falls under the spell of a cute boy named Karl (Jannis Niewohner). She’s desperate for someone to lean on. Unfortunately, Karl’s ready shoulder is no coincidence. He’s the leader of a “youth movement” (a WHITE SUPREMACIST “youth movement”) that’s all about protecting “native Europeans” and excluding all non-whites. And who better to become the spokesperson of this youth movement than a young, beautifully broken girl who’s just lost her family to terrorism? A perfectly haunting example of the threat of “others,” her testimony will be powerful and persuasive. But what we know and Maxi doesn’t is that Karl’s appearance in her life isn’t just well-timed. It was Karl himself who set off the bomb that killed her family, eager to stir up some anti-immigrant sentiment, and proving it’s all too easy to do so.

Je Suis Karl is not a perfect film by any means. In fact, as you can probably tell by my description so far, it’s a little on the nose, with perfect parallels to real-life. But those parallels are frightening. Karl’s movement has major ambitions, and clearly will stop at nothing to achieve them. Recruitment is deliberate and intense, the organization is cult-like but self-aware, its leaders charming and charismatic. For many of us, it’s scary to watch history repeating itself while these disillusioned kids are using history as a blueprint to improve upon. Of course, the temptation to scapegoat someone is not exclusive to the youth, and we’re seeing this kind of thing far too often. Maxi is obviously a compelling and tragic character, but I wish we’d seen things more from Karl’s point of view. He may be reprehensible and sociopathic, but we’d gain more from understanding his perspective. Are these truly his beliefs, or has he merely calculated this to be his best way to power? A drama could easily turn into a horror asking questions like these, but director Christian Schwochow plays it safe and keeps things relatively superficial, taking everyone at their word. The result is not a bad movie; in fact, I admired it for even broaching the subject, but I did hope we’d get our hands a little dirtier. I don’t expect a movie to solve racism, but I do hope that a movie that takes such careful aim would handle things a little more responsibly.

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