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BERLINALE 2022 Encounters

Review: Axiom

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- BERLINALE 2022: In Jöns Jönsson’s film, a young man keeps inventing fantastical stories about his life, until the lies one day threaten to catch up with him

Review: Axiom
Moritz von Treuenfels in Axiom

Being your best self is hard. But being anyone at all is usually a given. Not so in Jöns Jönsson’s feature film Axiom [+see also:
trailer
interview: Jöns Jönsson
film profile
]
, which had its world premiere in the Encounters section of this year’s Berlinale. His protagonist, Julius (Moritz von Treuenfels), is a blank canvas, a pastiche of any person he encounters. Throughout the movie, we learn very little about his personality. At the same time, that is everything we need to know. It makes for an eerie experience that is both engaging and increasingly disturbing.

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Working a six-month trial period is a bad deal, Julius explains to his new colleague Erik (Thomas Schubert). Erik has just moved to Cologne from Austria, and the seemingly cultured and articulate Julius, with whom he shares museum guard shifts, is ready to take him under his wing. He even invites him to join him and his friends for a sailing weekend at the lake in his family’s boat.

This eager, self-assured self-presentation is a first glimpse into what seems to be the cocky but caring attitude of the twenty-something protagonist. But the first suspicious shadows soon begin to creep up, when Julius listens in a little too closely to a conversation on the bus. Two men are talking about a local fish thief who was busted in a stranger’s basement. Minutes later, Julius reproduces the story as his own experience. Also worrying is his sudden anxiety. While everyone else is ready to head to the marina, Julius appears less and less eager to reach the boat. “You always have an excuse. What is wrong with you, man,” one of his friends bellows. 

The trip is cancelled at the last minute by Julius’ mysterious seizure. Epilepsy, everyone agrees. As a viewer, one already is wary. “When will you stop doing this, you are not five years old anymore,” Julius’ mother finally calls him out as she picks him up from the hospital. “Fake it till you make it” is a familiar saying, and Julius its ultimate realisation. His aren’t little white lies: rather he is a shell for whatever sensation, whatever narrative is compelling enough. Is his compulsion a symptom of insecurity, mental illness, or of a drive to break with social conformities? Jönsson does not answer this question; nor does he need to.

Focusing on how Julius breaks unspoken social norms, human expectations of truthfulness and loyalty, and on how this affects not just those around him but primarily himself, the film is an intensely intimate experience. His character is neither sympathetic nor repulsive, rather he is an object of intriguing curiosity. The way he uses little moments to tell people what they want to hear, or lets them eagerly fill in the blanks of his charade. Julius may not be narcissistic — that would be too easy an explanation and would underplay the fact that he does stand up for others. But there is a need to gain attention, or be somebody. This mysterious fuel that keeps him going is also what inspired the viewer to join him on this journey.

Jönsson’s carefully composed script does not try to make a moral statement on how Julius leads his friends on. Rather, he lets his character’s own house of cards slowly crumble on him. As the plot thickens and the lies begin to multiply in a rapid crescendo, there finally comes the inevitable confrontation with their ramifications. Julius’s girlfriend Marie (Ricarda Seifried) tells her friends the same story about a nude pedestrian as he has prior told her parents. “But why”, he asks. Her simple answer will uproot him more than he would have ever imagined.

While the movie excels at its ever-intensifying plotting, it is not without slumps, such as the moment when Jönsson allows Julius’ friends to start an extensive philosophical debate on Erik’s religious beliefs. While this might disrupt the pacing, there is a deeper thematic relevance to the story. “God is an axiom,” the group argues, a statement or entity that is taken to be true, serving as a starting point for further arguments.

The same could be said about Julius. His stories are being taken for granted, discussed and processed. Just like Erik’s religion adheres to a set of principles, societal principles “force” Julius’ friends to take his stories for granted. “Fake it till you make it” might be the romantic idea of reinventing yourself. Jönsson, however, focuses on giving a dark and disturbing glimpse into those individuals who have taken this message to heart so profoundly that, in the end, there is nothing left of themselves. 

Axiom is produced by Bon Voyage Films and funded by WDR Cologne and Arte Strasbourg. International sales are handled by The Playmaker.

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