The Sonic Youth frontwoman reads William Blake poetry in this surreal, drug-fuelled body horror
As priced-out Londoners join the flood of Americans moving to Berlin, the rep of the rapidly changing capital as a cheap-rent idyll is fading. What remains undisputed is that the city knows how to party. And its “anything goes” hedonism is feeding into some of the freshest new German films. In this year’s arthouse hit Victoria by Sebastian Schipper, we reeled in one nail-biting take with a Spanish ex-pat from a long night clubbing into a heist.
Now set for its international premiere at the Locarno Film Festival this week is striking indie techno horror Der Nachtmahr, in which a teen unravels over a string of heavy nights out. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon makes a cameo in the film, and adds her signature rock tinge to the soundtrack. We caught up with director Akiz and his close-knit team at the cast and crew party at Berlin open-air club IPSE last weekend to find out how they pulled off a club scene film that’s so unique.
Re-set Spring Breakers in Berlin, mix in a sinister version of E.T., the dream logic of David Lynch’s Lost Highway and a strong tab of acid, and you’re near the feel of Der Nachtmahr, in which 17-year-old Tina starts being visited by a strange creature. “Nachtmahr” is an Old German word that means “nightmare”. The title echoes a Swiss painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli of a sleeping woman draped over a bed with a goblin-like creature perched on her. As the visions take hold and Tina feels increasingly isolated from her friends, it’s unclear if they’re symptomatic of one too many comedowns, or if there is a supernatural explanation.
“At first we were thinking it’s a nightmare because we can’t pay people. But it turned out great because if there’s no money, there’s nobody telling you how it should be done” – Akiz
Carolyn Genzkow nails the emotional spectrum of highs and paranoid lows Tina spirals through, with an engrossing performance that should mean wider recognition for the 23-year-old actress from Hamburg. Of Tina’s crisis, which has spawned many different interpretations, she told us: “For me it’s about authenticity. Society demands certain things from you but you have to confront and accept your true self.” Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht plays Tina’s love interest Adam, an ambiguous outsider. He’s a face we’ll see again in Roland Emmerich’s upcoming Stonewall, about New York kids who start the Stonewall Riots. The film’s directed by multi-talent Akiz, who’s also a recognised painter and sculptor. He managed to get Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon on board, since she’s a big fan of his prior Eight Miles High, the biopic about 60s German clubbing fixture and commune member Uschi Obermaier. As well as contributing to the soundtrack, Gordon appears as Tina’s teacher, reading William Blake poetry to the class.
Akiz told us that the film’s micro-budget was as much a blessing as a curse, allowing them a freedom not common in the “extremely conservative” German film industry. “At first we were thinking it’s a nightmare because we can’t pay people,” he said, “but it turned out great because if there’s no money, there’s nobody telling you how it should be done.” He said the production came together in a dynamic mix of friends and the creative energy of young people not averse to experimenting: “I was only looking for the energy you get from people. Not their experience. People who are established are afraid of losing their reputation if it goes wrong.” Brimming with DIY charm and attitude, the film has lashings of humour that show the team didn’t take themselves too seriously.
Akiz also got the right people on board to nail the music and locations. They shot in club Stattbad Wedding and outside Berghain, and Atari Teenage Riot (co-editor Philipp Virus previously did their music videos and artwork), Oblast and Boys Noize are on the loud and heavy soundtrack.
Getting the look of the creature right took years. Using his skill as a sculptor, Akiz made the first prototypes more than a decade ago. It gels with the shadowy atmosphere, which was shot with wide-angle lenses using only available light and suits a film about the subconscious in which teens live their lives at night. Mood is everything in Der Nachtmahr, its streak of dark romanticism owing much to Akiz’s idol William Blake and the German Expressionist films of the 20s. There’s a psychological depth that takes the film deeper under your skin than most slick genre fare and into Tina’s inner world of conflicted identity.
With this the first of a trilogy of films following the themes of Birth, Love and Death and all dealing with a speechless creature that generates societal chaos (the next is set to shoot next year), Akiz knows he’s onto a good thing.
Der Nachtmahr has its international premiere at Locarno Film Festival this week