by Susanne Gottlieb
- The childlike, magical world of Erik Schmitt’s new film, out today in German cinemas, invites viewers to walk alongside the main character in awe but loses some of its charm in the final act
In his feature debut, Cleo [+see also:
film profile], German filmmaker Erik Schmitt turns the streets of modern-day Berlin into a colourful and mystical setting in which a young woman is not only hunting for treasure, but also working through the demons of her past. Schmitt deploys a unique style of narration in this fairy tale, utilising quirky set pieces and editing techniques as well as making the most of charming performances from his leads. The momentum the movie gains in its first hour, however, can’t be sustained, making the whole affair rather lifeless at the finishing line.
Living amid the magical streets of the capital is thirty-something protagonist Cleo (recurrent Schmitt collaborator Marleen Lohse). Her backstory is elaborated on in a flashback through 800 years of Berlin’s history, ending on 9 November 1989. It is the night the Berlin Wall falls, and young Cleo is born within walking distance of it, in an ambulance hemmed in by a crowd of people. Complications arise, and the mother dies during her birth.
A few years later, young Cleo (now Gwendolyn Gobel) is enjoying her childhood with her father, her imagination turning the city into a goldmine for adventures. It is here that she learns about a mystical clock that can turn back time. Cleo, riddled with guilt, decides to bring her mother back. But as she searches for it with her father, another tragedy occurs. Twenty years later, Cleo has resigned herself to avoiding any human interaction until treasure hunter Paul (Jeremy Mockridge) asks for her help. Cleo realises that said treasure includes the clock. She and Paul form an alliance that will take them from the upper- to the underworld of Berlin, and from Alexanderplatz to Teufelsberg.
Schmitt, whose previous work includes the shorts Rhino Full Throttle (2013) and Berlin Metanoia (2016), enhances his narrative style and unleashes a bulging bag of visual tricks on the viewer. The animated sequences and optical illusions revolving around size and space give the movie an otherworldly feel. Dark corners open up like gateways, rooms shrink and expand, the picture starts shaking, and the characters walk up the screen vertically and pick objects out of the sky.
Reminiscent of the look and feel of Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep [+see also:
film profile] or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, this world is also populated by eccentric side characters, ranging from a taser-loving museum security guard to a charming criminal duo with peculiar quirks. Unlike in those aforementioned films, however, Schmitt loses the beat of his narrative as the story reaches the one-hour mark. The visuals start to feel more self-serving than enchanting, and the story begins checking off all of the conventional narrative developments. It is also the point at which the enigma of Paul turns into a generic love-interest storyline, failing to emulate the pain-stricken, enchanting chemistry that the above movies brought to the table.
The moral lesson of the story is present and correct, but it is the search for Berlin’s unique soul within the tale that Schmitt can’t bring to complete fruition. The embodiment of this treasure hunt, the story of his protagonist, therefore ultimately falls short of being all that magical.
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