Following a general pattern of decline since its ‘20s golden age, over the past two decades, Germany has seen a moderate revival of its limited—and drastically underfunded—film industry. Even so, despite a greater output of movies and higher box office returns, few recent German productions achieved mainstream success. Wolfgang Becker’s ingenious tragicomedy “Good Bye, Lenin!” and Tom Tykwer’s disturbing psychological thriller “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” are two internationally-acclaimed exceptions that prove the rule.
Katrin Gebbe’s jarring psycho-drama “Pelican Blood” (“Pelikanblut”) might shortly join these ranks; that is if wider audiences can tolerate its taxing 122-minute runtime and its young star’s ceaseless, piercing squalling. These key attributes of the writer/director’s German-language film could rattle tetchier viewers, but that’s exactly what she needs to pull off her unsettling tale of human forbearance pushed to its excruciating limits. Sadly, some cinephiles may well fail to appreciate this, and Gebbe’s second feature is as a consequence likely to lure a more exclusive band of admirers.
When we first encounter Wiebke (a versatile Nina Hoss), she’s not far from the end of her soon-to-be frayed rope. The professional horse trainer is a loving single mother to adopted 9-year-old Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo); building on this, the set-up is simple, establishing the pair’s strong bond and idyllic rural life in an economic 10 minutes by way of low-key wide shots and subdued tones. Although prudently efficient given the movie’s length, it’s a little too temperate, and a handful of extra nature shots would credibly lay down the bucolic setting. This is no biggie, though, as the first act rolls along with Wiebke and Nicolina off to Bulgaria to fulfill the youngster’s wish for a sister. Enter Raya (Katerina Lipovska), a wide-eyed, gap-toothed cutie—for now—in need of a home.
Not long after the trio return to Germany, the terror commences as Raya’s attitude to her new mum and sibling shifts drastically. Despite an abundance of red flags—such as a mangled animal turning up in the laundry basket—Wiebke casually dismisses the 5-year-old’s abysmal behavior as “testing the boundaries.” But when the pint-sized psychopath blames an imagined (?) demonic spirit for her increasing second-act aggression, Wiebke seeks the opinion of a child psychologist. He informs her that a severe attachment disorder will always affect the girl’s ability to feel empathy, thrusting the concerned new mum into a painful quandary. Should Wiebke concede defeat, abandoning an already troubled kid to maintain her sanity and protect Nicolina’s wellbeing? Or should she persevere, jeopardizing the happy life they’ve created together?
What slowly unfurls afterward in this achingly powerful movie is a carefully-observed and strangely relatable story about the darkest side of parenting. Using dialogue sparingly, Gebbe successfully exploits every ounce of Hoss’ broad-reaching, non-verbal talent, portraying the isolation deriving from her protagonist’s choice to persist with the tiniest of terrorists. The filmmaker also drops some clever, character-led scenes, which demonstrate the harmful effects of Wiebke’s obsessive struggles to cure her daughter, into her flawless narrative structure, especially in Wiebke’s relationships with Nicolina and colleague-cum-boyfriend Benedict (Murathan Muslu).
Once the final act hits, a desperate Wiebke shelves all rational thought, blurring the line between the real and the supernatural in just about the most balls-the-the-wall fashion possible. But do we question her insane decisions? Certainly not. Why? Because Hoss’ natural performance, aided by Gebbe’s capable writing and direction, helps paint these decisions as mere character flaws to overlook rather than irritating miscalculations.
As the astonishing conclusion approaches, questions as to the genesis of Raya’s troubles—inhibiting viewers since this visceral drama crawled out of the gate—are finally answered. Such ambiguity—separating the truth as most humans understand it and events beyond the scope of regular scientific understanding—permits the audience to draw obvious comparisons between “Pelican Blood” and Jennifer Kent’s gnomic horror “The Babadook.” Concerning the true villains at the core of their plots, both rely heavily on symbolism, their metaphorical imperatives equally engrossing and arguable until the end credits roll. With her conceit, Gebbe comes full circle, winding back to an earlier moment giving the film its apt title.
To her credit, the filmmaker’s sophomore effort remains earnest from start to finish, when it could so easily have been coaxed down a different path on multiple occasions. Hoss’s performance mirrors this guarded tack and intensity of conviction, rooting the tale in a frighteningly convincing reality. Even if only those keen on art films will genuinely flirt with the ideas in “Pelican Blood,” it deserves a spot up there beside the big boys of German cinema.