A successful mix of straightforward suspense and gallows humor, Maximilian Erlenwein’s sophomore feature, “Stereo,” is in some ways an inversion of his 2008 debut, “Gravity,” wherein guilt-inducing trauma unleashed an ordinary schmoe’s hitherto-unknown dark side. Here, Jurgen Vogel plays a man whose nice-guy ordinariness might be a form of denial, with Moritz Bleibtreu on hand as an alter ego determined to topple our protagonist’s fragile conformity. Smoothly journeying from psychological black comedy to blood-soaked gangland shoot-‘em-up, the pic nears the end of its fest-circuit travel with various-format offshore sales still beckoning. Remake rights could have legs as well.
Though the leather-jacketed, shaven-headed Erik (Vogel) looks pretty menacing by the standards of the small Bavarian burg where he’s landed, he’s an apparent pussycat in his wooing of area single Julia (Petra Schmidt-Schaller), and a fine prospective father to her small daughter, Linda (Helena Schonfelder). No matter that his new girlfriend’s local-cop father Wolfgang (Rainer Bock) is hostile toward the interloper, or that Erik appears pretty hapless in his job as a motorcycle mechanic; the trio appear headed toward becoming a permanent family unit nevertheless.
Roadblocks appear on that path, however. A nearby caravan of Roma men keep throwing Erik dirty looks, and one (Mark Zak) takes the trouble to inform him they know he’s in cahoots with “Keitel.” This is news to Erik. Even more disturbing is his shadowing by Henry (Bleibtreu), a figure in a hoodie who soon stops simply lurking around and starts to dispense unhelpful advice like (when Erik chats with a couple of BMX-riding kids) “Kill them.”
It becomes apparent even to Erik that “Henry” is probably a figment of his imagination, one he’d like very much to get rid of. To that end, he visits a doctor who recommends a sort of faith healer-cum-accupuncturist. But the latter’s ministrations only agitate Erik and his uninvited mental guest further. Meanwhile, the actual scumbag crime kingpin named Keitel (Georg Friedrich) becomes aware of the dysfunctional duo’s whereabouts, and seems to have some very unpleasant business to settle with them both, whoever “they” really are.
“Stereo” briskly wends its way toward an action climax that fits it snugly into the revenge-bloodbath subgenre recently paid winking homage by “John Wick.” Where that film’s violent stunt-driven spectacle gleefully snapped tether to anything save genre conventions, Erlenwein more deftly balances action formula and grounding emotional reality — the latter provided largely by Julia & Co., who are swept aghast into the giant puddle of ick her seemingly innocuous suitor hasn’t quite put behind him. The imaginary-friend aspect lets “Stereo” pull off considerable last-act bravado that needn’t be entirely credible to play as vividly nasty and satisfying.
The lead male actors might’ve easily swapped roles to equally effective result; supporting turns are uniformly solid. The same goes for the sleek, stylish but succinct packaging, which is first-rate down the line.
Film Review: 'Stereo'
Reviewed online, San Francisco, Feb. 16, 2015. (In Berlin & Beyond Film Festival; 2014 Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, London film festivals.) Running time: 95 MIN.
(Germany) A Frisbeefilms and Kaissar Film production in co-production with ZDF-Das Kleine Fernsehspiel and Wild Bunch Germany in association with Arte. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Munich.) Produced by Alexander Bickenbach, Manuel Bickenbach, Khaled Kaissar. Co-producers, Marc Gabizon, Amelie Kienlin.
Directed, written by Maximilian Erlenwein. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Ngo The Chau; editor, Sven Budelmann; music, Enis Rotthoff; production designer, Heike Lange; costume designer, Maria Schicker; sound, Christoph Schilling; sound designer, Daniel Weis; re-recording mixer, Florian Beck; assistant director, Lars Gmehling; casting, Silke Koch.
Jurgen Vogel, Moritz Bleibtreu, Petra Schmidt-Schaller, Georg Friedrich, Rainer Bock, Mark Zak, Helena Schonfelder, Fabian Hinrichs, Valery Tscheplanowa, Jurgen Holtz, Paul Fabnacht, Adrian Can, Julian Schmieder, Gerdy Zint. (German, Russian dialogue.)