Urszula Antoniak looks at the European immigrant experience via a father-son meeting in Berlin
Dir/scr. Urszula Antoniak. Poland/The Netherlands, 2017, 85 mins.
In an unexpected weekend reunion between a Polish-born, Berlin-based lawyer and the father he thought was dead, Beyond Words finds revelation, rumination and a reflection of the restlessness at the heart of the immigrant experience. And, in her fourth film, the Polish-born, Amsterdam-based writer/director Urszula Antoniak explores the complexities that accompany inheriting, claiming and forging an identity — as fittingly realised through the shades of grey in the feature’s black-and-white imagery.
Beyond Words happily shows rather than tells when it comes to the central character’s predicament, as a film of precise visuals more than plentiful dialogue.
Premiering in Toronto, the film boasts both the potency and poignancy to garner further festival attention, not to mention the timely and topical nature of its examination of European migration. The acclaim directed Antoniak’s way for her previous three efforts — 2009 Locarno hit Nothing Personal, the 2011 Cannes-screening Code Blue and 2014’s Nude Area — will attract initial interest, but it’s the feature itself that will keep viewers engaged.
If he didn’t admit it to a very select few — his boss and mentor Franz (Christian Löber) is the only example given — no one would know that Michael (Jakub Gierszał) was Polish. As his pedantic practicing of German phrasing and accent at home demonstrates, that’s his aim. Working on refugee cases, he aims to have nothing in common with his clients, though he can appreciate their similarities deep down. When any are voiced, he deflects, declining to represent an African poet, keeping his distance from the Polish waitress (Justyna Wasilewsa) with a crush on him, ensuring he looks the local part and living a minimalistic existence devoid of reminders of his history.
His long-lost musician dad Stanislaw’s (Andrzej Chyra) arrival isn’t something he can simply ignore, however, as the gates to his past slowly begin to open. While their time together is awkward, filled with sightseeing, trying to spark some semblance of a father-son connection, stilted conversation in his native tongue and much left unsaid, Michael can’t return to his previous sense of normality once it is over.
Late in their weekend, the duo discusses westerns, with Stanislaw relating his childhood experiences with his own father in perhaps his most earnest moment. Using the genre to talk of happy idylls shattered and outside opinions given too much weight, it provides an apt parallel to their largely silent relationship and its embodiment of stoic masculinity, and of Michael’s approach to his background. He prefers to act rather than contemplate, doing everything he can to be seen as German rather than think about what he’s erasing, and taking into mind how others perceive him. Though eschewing self-consciousness, Beyond Words happily shows rather than tells when it comes to his predicament, as a film of precise visuals more than plentiful dialogue.
Accordingly, as Michael, Gierszał carries the feature’s understated but powerful emotional burden — and, as the title makes plain, conveys his internalised pain and uncertainty, and the realisations that follow, largely through his physicality. In a brief but building career that has seen him in the eclectic mix of Morris From America, The Lure and Spoor in the past year, it’s a standout performance. Veteran Chyra is equally memorable as the overtly Polish cheese to his German-assimilating chalk.
For Antoniak, guiding compelling portrayals from her small cast proves just one of her successes; delving convincingly into terrain not often tackled from such a perspective, exploring the existential malaise of migrants, the allure of Berlin to former Communist nationals and the layers of racism in multicultural societies is another. As a craftsperson, her commanding eye is also on display in images strikingly composed to look at, and thematically probing in their obvious contrasts — as aided by Lennert Hillege’s lustrous monochrome lensing.
Production companies: Opus Film, Family Affair Films
International sales: Global Screen GmbH, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Piotr Dzięcioł, Lukasz Dzięcioł, Floor Onrust, Noortje Wilschut
Cinematographer: Lennert Hillege
Editors: Nathalie Alonso Casale, Milenia Fiedler
Production designers: Miren Oller, Katarzyna Jędrzejczyk
Costume designers: Paulina Sieniarska, Heleen Heijntjes
Composer: Jozef van Wissem
Cast: Jakub Gierszal, Andrzej Chyra, Christian Löber, Justyna Wasilewsa