Der Nachtmahr (2015), the directorial debut of German multi-disciplinary artist Akiz, begins with a title card requesting that the following film is “played loud, okay?”. This immediately suggests that the sensory experience will be as key to gaining understanding as intellectual engagement, and so proves to be the case. Fittingly for a film about the awkward alienation of the teenage years, Akiz is aiming for a visceral and palpable reaction to his dark tale of a 17-year-old girl plagued by a grotesque, sprite-like creature that seems to be following her around and who nobody else can see. What is unquestionable is that it makes for creepily affecting viewing.
Transplanting Johann Heinrich Füssli’s famous painting of the same into the setting of modern Berlin’s party scene is a canny move by the filmmaker. The sensory assault, that comes from the ear-splitting electronic soundtrack and strobe lighting at the opening rave sequence, perfectly aligns with the heightened – somewhat overwhelming – emotions of adolescence. This is particularly true for a character such as Tina (fantastically embodied by Carolyn Genzkow) who is suggested to have a history of psychological concerns. The rave, or perhaps something that she has taken during it, spark a vision of her own death which plays in real-time before being revealed as some kind of hallucination.
From this moment on the line between fantasy and reality is all but gone, and the audience must constantly decide what they believe to actually be happening. Akiz places them firmly within the perspective of Tina, and Clemens Baumeister tries keep the visuals disorientating despite the fact that their nightmarish energy is really confined to a handful of instances. What this does mean, though, is that when the homunculus arrives it seems, to all intents and purposes, to be real. Like a gruesome twist on E.T., its intentions are a mysterious, as are its origins. The most potent clue comes in a sequence at school when Tina is asked for her interpretation of a poem by Blake that other students have claimed is about birth. She concurs that it’s a birth, but of an abstract and growing “feeling that has no name.” Although the film has no intention of defining what this little monster is, Tina is encouraged by her psychiatrist to make physical contact with it and it’s these interactions that provide the most tense and tender moments. The journey towards self-acceptance, whoever you are, is at the heart of most teen films and the notion that Tina must befriend this externalised manifestation of her pubescent anxiety and the fear of social rejection is a fascinating twist on a genre mainstay. While Genzkow is very watchable in the role, it’s perhaps a shame that the visuals settle into familiar territory after a bold start, but Der Nachtmahr is ultimately a stylish and disquieting debut from Akiz, and a bizarre twist on the classic coming of age yarn.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.