Der Nachtmahr – A Strange and Familiar Dream
After its trailer debuted this past June, Der Nachtmahr jumped to the top of my must-see list. The look and energy raised hopes it could be this year’s It Follows. Written and directed by German visual artist Akiz, the film follows the teenage Tina (played by Carolyn Genzkow) on the eve of her 18th birthday. She parties with her friends when she has a math exam the next day, has a crush on a DJ, and occasionally clashes with her parents. In other words, she’s an ordinary teen. The veil of normalcy is slowly stripped away by the presence of a creature that at first only she can see. It arouses concerns about her mental health from her parents and alienation from her friends. The more Tina sees and interacts with the creature, the more her world begins to fall apart. She’s engulfed in fear and paranoia, increasingly alone as she fights to hold onto what little is left of her old life. In other words, she’s trapped in a living nightmare.
The film sets the mood with a warning about strobe effects that could affect those with epilepsy, followed by a playful suggestion to play the film loudly. A techno soundtrack propels the film forward and is often used to disorient viewers as it shatters scenes that linger on teenage ennui. As Tina, Carolyn Genzkow floats from scene to scene, fluctuating from aloof to terrified. While she effectively conveys the image of a realistic teen, she isn’t given enough to make that realism compelling. There’s a cold distance in which the film was shot, like a voyeur not entirely interested in his subject. We’re there in the moment, but still detached from it as though we’re in a haze induced by the mood-stabilizing drugs Tina is forced to take by her parents.
The creature itself appears to have clawed its way out from the annals of 80s cinema—a little bit E.T. (more on that later), some of the ugliness of Belial from Basket Case, a dash of the cuteness of Mac from Mac and Me. It wouldn’t at all be out of place among the Ghoulies. These comparisons shouldn’t be considered a criticism. Despite its CGI enhancements, the creature has a tactile quality those earlier practical creations possessed. It feels like part of the world instead of added in post-production.
As the connection between Tina and creature grows stronger, viewers will be immediately reminded of the similar bond between Elliot and E.T. in that film. Tina feels the creature’s pain when it is harmed and is rendered unconscious when it is shot with a tranquiler gun. And like E.T., the creature is taken away and tested, kept behind plastic curtains in a hospital, awaiting rescue from Tina.
You can sense the influences of other filmmakers, such as David Lynch (a supporter of Akiz), Roman Polanski, and even Harmony Korine in little flourishes throughout the film. And let’s not forget to include fellow German filmmaker Wim Wenders; the appearance of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon in a small role reminded me of some of the curious celebrity casting choices Wenders made.
But Akiz doesn’t just reference a single work of another filmmaker. During the film’s climax, we’re treated to a perfectly composed symmetrical shot with a red glowing light in the center (think HAL 9000) just as “Title Music From A Clockwork Orange” (adapted from Henry Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary”) begins to play. It’s a bizarre mash-up that begs for analysis. Should we view Tina as a corrupted youth like Clockwork‘s droogs? Does the creature and it’s almost parasitic relationship with Tina represent a new form of life like the Star Child in 2001?? Or is the film not suggesting any of those things at all? Dream logic, after all, often lacks any logic.
It’s easy to get tripped up looking for answers when there might not be any, as this film leaves many questions. Considering Akiz’s background and his influences, though, it’s important to avoid viewing the elements of the film as puzzle pieces to be put together, but rather paint strokes to be considered. The film might be better suited for an art installation than a movie theater, but it isn’t without its cinematic merits. There’s much to be picked at and debated (are others actually starting to see the creature or is that just another aspect of Tina’s descent into madness?). It’s not often films start off with a set of instructions, but they feel most appropriate in this case for experiencing the film—go into Der Nachtmahr with volume loud and try not to have a seizure.
Der Nachtmahr has its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 17, 2015.