There are few phrases that set my alarm bells ringing the way 'artist's film' can. I often end up feeling they are more like misplaced gallery pieces than anything I am interested in as cinema. Happily, this first film by visual artist Akiz, while certainly making a powerful visual and sonic impression and having an artistic eye, is driven first by its characters and their experiences.
Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) and her friends are pretty typical 17-year-olds, when they're not at school they like to party, they dance, they experiment with drugs and they fall into and out of relationships with each other. However, Tina has begun to believe that there is a monster following her around, at first it seems threatening, but it becomes clear that Tina and the monster are closely linked and her relationship to it changes.
Der Nachtmahr is, it must be said, based around a metaphor that it shouts pretty loudly. The monster is a physicalisation of Tina's mental health problems and as those problems deepen the monster becomes more present in her life, closer to her, up until the final shot, which implies that the monster - the illness - is now more in control than Tina is. It's neither the deepest nor the most original of metaphors, but it rings true and is delivered so effectively that it's hard to mind. If you've suffered depression, the idea of it as a grey monster that ties itself more and more to every aspect of your life will likely ring true.
The fact that this comes across as more than a rather facile metaphor is down to how well drawn Akiz' screenplay is and to how well it is matched by the performance of Carolyn Genzkow (who is 23, but whose peculiarly striking face often looks even younger than her character is supposed to be). A dinner table scene shows off both the script and Genzkow's performance to great advantage. The monster is an all but constant presence by this point, but it is shut in Tina's room as she joins her parents (Arnd Klawitter and Julika Jenkins, both very good) for what seems to be an important work dinner for her father. Throughout this scene, Genzkow gives us a palpable sense of the monster gnawing at Tina (metaphorically), as she can hear it upstairs and imagine it scratching at the door. This is an astutely observed depiction of how mental illness can feel in moments of pressure, and Genzkow plays it perfectly.
In scenes that focus on Tina at home, the surreality of the monster (which looks a little like a foetal version of the Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth) is set against a roomy house that can feel both welcoming and creepy. The solid grounding in reality only makes the monster and its interactions with Tina more unnerving, especially in the scene when it first reaches out and touches her hand as she dozes in her room.
Outside the house, with her friends, the surrealist touches are usually less present (perhaps because, at least to begin with, Tina's illness is dissipated somewhat when she is with her friends). In these scenes, largely set at house parties with pounding music and neon lights, we see why the opening captions, as well as warning of strobe lighting, insist that the film is designed to be played loudly. Der Nachtmahr is seldom subtle, but in these scenes, it can feel outright assaultive. But again, Akiz' choices are effective. These scenes have a real sense of throwing you into the middle of the party with Tina and her friends. If you wouldn't be able to hear the dialogue in that situation, you don't hear it on the soundtrack, it's a visceral immersion in amongst all the bodies on the dancefloor, but with enough distance to give you a sense of the dynamic, for instance of Tina beginning to isolate herself, even in the very first party scene.
The supporting cast are all fine, with and making an impression, as Tina's best friend and sometime boyfriend respectively, and Kim Gordon (who also consulted on and contributed to the film's soundtrack) making a surprising cameo as Tina's English Literature teacher. It's not really suggested by the scene, but if you wanted you could perhaps read this as another of Tina's fantasies, she's deep enough in her mental illness to be hallucinating a lot at this point and hey, what cool indie kid wouldn't like Kim Gordon as their poetry teacher?
Akiz makes a creditable directorial début here. He knows what he wants to say, which does sometimes result in him shouting his point, whether with his visuals or his central metaphor. However, those images are strong, memorable and often echo in interesting ways. One moment the film returns to several times is that of a young woman being hit by a car. This image is played with in time, in memory, and every time it is revisited it's striking in a different way. For me what is refreshing about this as a film by an artist is how much of its drive comes through the characters, and how the images are designed to support those people and their story, it generally tends to be the other way round.
Some will find Der Nachtmahr overly strident, but I've no problem with a filmmaker communicating with clarity (in fact it's a refreshing turn outside the mainstream). It's an engaging film on all levels, driven by an excellent performance from Carolyn Genzkow and marking out Akiz as a director to watch.