Der Nachtmahr (2016): Written and directed by Akiz. Starring: Carolyn Genzkow, Sina Tkotsch, Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht, Arnd Klawitter, Julika Jenkins. Running Time: 88 minutes.
Der Nachtmahr starts off with a warning for anyone who’s epileptic or disturbed by atonal, dissonant music, informing viewers that this movie will feature a lot of bright, flashing lights and loud, dirty-basement-club beats. This is not an idle threat; it delivers on that assurance within seconds. As the opening credits state, this is a film that has to be played loud, because a volume setting any lower would remove much of the potent, ambient atmosphere that makes Der Nachtmahr one of the most effective, arresting, and interesting movies of the year.
Like any self-respecting modern teenager, Tina seems preoccupied with doing anything but preparing for her final exams. Most of the film is set at night, when she leaves the house to party with her friends until she literally drops (her parents either don’t know about her wanton partying, or don’t care, or tacitly endorse it, and I’m not sure which is worse). It’s also at night when mysterious choking/vomiting sounds begin emanating from the downstairs kitchen, and after several failed attempts to get her parents to investigate, she discovers the source- a tiny, gray, Gollum-like creature (but much more weak and helpless) raiding the fridge. Terrified, curious, and paranoid, she tries to reveal the existence of the creature to her friends, parents, and others, only to find that the thing disappears once someone else enters the room. Or at least, it does most of the time.
This is one of those films that brilliantly plays with perspective and perception, constantly throwing the viewer into doubt about what parts of the movie are “real” (if indeed any of them are). As Tina’s therapist reminds us, the mind remains one of the greatest mysteries in the universe, prone to playing terrible tricks with us. So who are we to assume we know what’s really going on any more than she does? Every time you think you’ve nailed down whether or not the creature actually exists, the film throws you for another loop that makes you reassess everything you thought you knew about what was going on.
Tina is portrayed flawlessly by relative unknown Carolyn Genzkow, who, despite her wiry, thin frame, packs into it all the anger, fear, vulnerability, resolve, and fragility that allows her to carry this movie on her shoulders. She is assisted by powerful use of atmospheric lighting; much like last year’s Victoria, the camera team finds ways to give the colored, neon glare of Berlin party houses an almost sentient, alien vibe. Many scenes are equally elevated by a fist-pumping soundtrack that I’m already shortlisting for consideration in my Year’s Best list.
While watching a movie like this groove confidently to its own strange, hypnotic beat is a pleasure all unto itself, the unceasing guessing game about what is really happening to Tina, and whether or not the creature of her nightmares is real or a figment of a broken mind, makes Der Nachtmahr into one of the most fascinating think pieces I’ve seen all year. I can’t begin to count the number of analogies the story could represent (although my girlfriend and I have our own strong suspicions about what the director is getting at). The easy way, of course, would be to take everything on-screen at face-value, although down that road lays much aggravation.
At first, I almost feared the film jumped the gun when the “creature” in question is fully revealed within the very first act of the movie. I suppose I had expected a more drawn-out, E.T.-esque mystery (although that classic is heavily referenced). But these concerns faded when I realized that a straight-up sci-fi adventure was not at all what the movie was getting at. Rather, it’s a deep, terrifying, psychological dive into many of the unconscious (and unwitting) habits of self-destruction that reside within all of us, and maybe just need the right nudge to be let loose.
Der Nachtmahr is ballsy, confusing, challenging, and uncomfortable in all the right ways, and is one of the most unique films of 2016 to date. I don’t know what sort of international release is planned for this one, but keep your eyes and ears open. You never know what you’ll find lurking inside your own home. Or mind.