Dir: Hans-Christian Schmid. Germany. 2003. 106mins.
The winner of the FIPRESCI prize at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Lichter plays like a German Short Cuts. If Altman's cinematic short story collection was given unity by its origin in Raymond Carver's dark fables of the disempowered American male, then Distant Lights - whose original script has no literary parentage - finds its common thread in the theme of the border: specifically, the German-Polish border, one of the European Union's more permeable frontiers. The film takes its artistic inspiration from both sides: from the modern German tradition, director Schmid takes a certain over-staged approach to social realism; from Poland, an eagerness to plug into those big ethical themes that Kieslowski specialised in. Although most of the talent (including new German heartthrob August Diehl) will be recognised only at home, the film is strong enough in its own right to add other overseas territories to the Russian and Mexican deals clinched at Berlin.
The Oder river marks the German-Polish border, and divides two very different towns: ostensibly wealthy Frankfurt am Oder, and ostensibly struggling Sublice. On the German side, a discount mattress impresario hires a handful of desperate jobseekers to do some quick sandwich-board advertising, and an architect prepares for a meeting with a wealthy client on a greenfield site across the river. In Sublice, a young cigarette smuggler suffers for love in the way that only teenagers can; and a hard-up taxi driver undergoes a different kind of crucifixion, when he finds himself unable to scrape together the money for his daughter's first communion dress. Meanwhile, a group of Ukranian refugees is trying to get across to the other side - by wading the river, if all else fails.
In an exercise of this kind, much of the enjoyment comes from the way in which the stories build and entwine and reflect each other through distorting mirrors. It is a purely aesthetic pleasure that can take the edge off the bleakest of storylines, and it is a pleasure that Distant Lights - which is nothing if not bleak - provides quite subtly, making up for a lack of explicit plot connections in some of the threads by furnishing a wealth of thematic parallels that are left for the audience to tease out.
The camerawork is flat, unshowy, nodding at Dogme only in a few dramatic scenes. The director is less interested in camera angles than in themes like trust and betrayal, and the way that ethical codes are not fixed, but bend according to one's level of desperation. In the end, the film's pessimism - brought home by a soundtrack of melancholic piano breaks - describes too neat a parabola, reminding the audience that it is not only happy endings that can be trite. But along the way, some memorable characters etch themselves on our consciousness - like the lonely, geeks, bankrupt mattress impresario (Striesow) who is so unused to kindness that he doesn't recognise it when it is offered to him; or the hard-up Polish taxi driver (Zamachowski) who is so determined to do the right thing that he ends up doing quite the wrong thing.
Prod co: Claussen & Wobke Filmproduktion
Int'l sales: Bavaria Media
Prods: Jakob Claussen, Thomas Wobke
Scr: Hans-Christian Schmid, Michael Gutmann
Cinematography: Bogumil Godfrejow
Prod des: Christian M Goldbeck, Andrej Liousikov
Ed: Bernd Schnegel, Hansjorg Weissbrich
Music: The Notwist
Main cast: August Diehl, Herbert Knaup, Julia Krynke, Maria Simon, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Claudia Geisler, Devid Striesow, Tom Jahn, Martin Kiefer, Alice Dwyer, Sebastian Urzendowsky