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TIFF ’15: ‘Der Nachtmahr’ is unsettling and surreal

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Der Nachtmahr
Written & Directed by Akiz
Germany, 2015
The wonderful thing about film festivals is that they shine a spotlight on unique stories and fresh styles of filmmaking that may fly under most people’s radar. Main stream films train audiences to relate to movies in a straightforward manner; films have a beginning middle and end, during which a story unfolds and gets wrapped up. The artistically abstract Der Nachtmahr frolics in ambiguity. The film chooses to tell a story that is as much about the uncertain feeling rolling around in the viewer’s gut as it is about the dialogue spoken onscreen.

Der Nachtmahr doesn’t waste any time letting the audience know that the film’s protagonist, Tina (Carolyn Genzkow), is no stranger to the local party scene. Tina spends her nights attending underground raves, taking drugs, obsessing over boys and dancing to electronic music. During a particularly wild night, Tina passes out and awakens to find that her life is drastically altered: Tina begins coming into contact with a grotesque little creature that only she can see or hear. Unable to prove the creature’s existence to her family and friends, both Tina’s mind and body start deteriorating. As Tina finds herself becoming further isolated from those she loves, her relationship with the creature starts to change.

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The film excels at affecting the viewer on a visceral level. Whether it’s the party scene’s intense strobe lights or the pulsating bass heavy electronic music that scores the film, Der Nachtmahr successfully puts the audience off balance before the film even introduces its horrifying little creature. Der Nachtmahr also utilizes an assortment of optical trickery to further disorient the audience. The film’s director, Akiz, employs a variety of smash cuts, inverted camera angles and even a few occasions of literally rewinding the film in order to confuse the audience and blur the line between what in Tina’s world is real and what is imagined.

Carolyn Genzkow does an admirable job filling Der Nachtmahr’s central role. Tina isn’t a fully fleshed out character: The film doesn’t share much about her, and she never behaves in any kind of way that endears her to the audience. While not necessarily complex in terms of how the character is written, Tina’s complexity is conveyed emotionally through Genzkow’s onscreen performance, and she evokes the audience’s empathy through her suffering. Considering that Genzkow spends a large portion of the film interacting with a puppet, she does a solid job making the audience believe Tina’s torment. When inserting a puppet into a dramatic scene, the crew works within an extremely small margin of error in order to successfully execute the director’s vision. It’s a testament to Akiz’s filmmaking prowess that the audience empathizes with Tina’s anguish instead of laughing at the inclusion of a puppet into a dramatic scene.

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Despite the title of the film translating to The Nightmare, those going into the film expecting to see a horror movie will be disappointed. Though Akiz peppers the movie with disturbing imagery and the film has a knack for unsettling the audience, the story depicts a young woman haunted not by a beast but by angst. While some directors choose to end their movies by leaving the door open to interpretation, Akiz goes one-step further and completely removes the door off its hinges. Der Nachtmahr eschews a narrative sense of closure in order to spark discussion and encourage self-reflection amongst its audience. Depending on one’s outlook, Der Nachtmahr is either frustratingly vague or encouragingly ambiguous.


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