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BERLINALE 2024 Competition

Review: Foreign Tongue


- BERLINALE 2024: Young actresses Lilith Grasmug and Josefa Heinsius are the beating heart of this coming-of-age drama by Claire Burger, revolving around a language exchange trip to Germany

Review: Foreign Tongue
Lilith Grasmug (left) and Josefa Heinsius in Foreign Tongue

One’s teenage years are hell, also in terms of expressing oneself and communicating with the world. A child is reinventing him or herself into an adult, and this entails formulating his or her own vernacular, which reflects different elements, including political views, social engagement and fashion.

In Foreign Tongue [+see also:
film profile
, which is taking part in the 74th Berlinale Competition, Claire Burger takes two examples of this species and places them under observation. They are the strong, beating heart of the story, which is delivered in a neat, level-headed and calm tone, counterbalancing the emotional turmoil of these two secondary-school seniors who are taking part in a language exchange programme. Fanny (Lilith Grasmug), who lives in Strasbourg, comes to Leipzig and moves in with Lena (Josefa Heinsius) and her mother, Susanne (Nina Hoss). They’re all middle-class and live in financially comfortable but emotionally distant or unstable homes.

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Susanne has recently broken up with her long-term boyfriend, is not working and has a nascent alcohol problem. Lena, who sports a mullet and is a rebel with many causes – including veganism, environmentalism and feminism – has taken on the mantle of her mother’s guardian and provides her with emotional support. She is blunt and fierce, and activism is her way of speaking up and dealing with the shaky situation at home and, well, in the wider world. Fanny, in turn, is more on the quiet side: she doesn’t seem to be close to her parents and admits that she was bullied at school.

When Fanny meets Lena, she invents stories about herself and her life – partly because she wants to seem more interesting to her new friend, and partly because this is how she copes with reality. It makes sense that Fanny would be fabricating stories, as so many conflicts and troubles are tearing up Mother Earth – and Lena is protesting against most of them.

The rebellious teenager is quite a clichéd figure, but in Burger’s film, the characters are complex, charming and appealing; it’s equally a result of the deft writing (the script was penned by the director in collaboration with Léa Mysius) and the performances of the lead actresses, Grasmug and Heinsius. They share a great chemistry and perfectly embody that weird stage in life when one’s identity is fluid and there is room for exploration – Fanny and Lena bond in a subtle, erotic way, too – and this adds energy and conviction to the story. Much of the film’s dramatic tension stems from us anticipating what will happen when Fanny’s lies come to light.

However, the denouement of the story is quite an unsatisfactory one and is actually the weakest element of the movie, like a quiet, distant peal of thunder emanating from an ominous storm cloud. Apparently, not every foreign language can have a rewarding translation.

Foreign Tongue was produced by France’s Les Films de Pierre, Germany’s Razor Film Produktion and Belgium’s Les Films du Fleuve, while Goodfellas manages its international sales.

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Photogallery 20/02/2024: Berlinale 2024 - Langue Étrangère

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Lilith Grasmug, Josefa Heinsius, Nina Hoss, Jalal Altawil, Marie Ange Luciani, Claire Burger
© 2024 Dario Caruso for Cineuropa -,, Dario Caruso

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