Xhafer (Mišel Matičević) is a pharmaceutical engineer from Kosovo who lives in the German suburbs with his wife Nora (Sandra Hüller) and their three children. As comfortable as this life sounds, the expat’s work environment is proving to be challenging, as he is subjected to thinly veiled xenophobia in the office. These perceived microaggressions get the better of him, and when an unwelcome gift greets him at his front door one day, the escalating situation plunges him into a crisis: is someone really after him because of his ethnic background or is it just paranoia… or both? – to utterly butcher Joseph Heller’s famous quote.
There’s little sense in mincing words: Exil was one of the tensest watches in the Panorama section at this year’s Berlinale – and indeed, in the festival as a whole. It’s the sort of film that induces an anxiety-drenched knot in your stomach from the very first scene, one that doesn’t loosen until several hours after the end credits have rolled. And while that may not be everyone’s idea of a fun time at the talkies, you’d be foolish to miss out on this dark, layered drama.
From the opening sequence and the palpable dread that infuses every scene in Visar Morina’s film, there’s no denying that the Kosovo-born, Germany-based writer-director presents himself as a disciple of Michael Haneke. The most obvious touchstone here is Caché, as his narrative also presents someone tormented by a person who seems to have insider knowledge on their past and fears. Morina navigates certain spaces in a way that directly echoes the feverish French psychodrama: the long and dark corridors in Xhafer’s office are reminiscent of Majid’s council house corridor, and while roosters may have been nightmare fuel for Daniel Auteuil in Caché, the repetitive (and increasingly unnerving) images of rats in Exil serve as a visual reminder of the central character’s psychological strain but also of the possibility of past childhood trauma. Morina’s craft is buttressed at every turn by Matteo Cocco’s cinematography, which is suitably suffocating throughout: the yellowing colour palette he uses claustrophobically compliments the labyrinthine office spaces, and his compositions – as well as Benedikt Schiefer’s disquieting score – brilliantly amplify both Xhafer’s tormented state of mind and the Kafkaesque nightmare he finds himself in.
Crucially never monolithic, this is an emotionally complex portrait of exclusion and integration. The sharp script delves into daily anguishes and manages to involve the audience into questioning how they would react to steadily-growing but petty transgressions-made-monsters by unwarranted projection or whether they’d consider them blatant insults that need to be called out. It exposes racist Western stereotypes by also shining a light on domestic attitudes, focusing on the passive aggressive streak inherent to German communication – specifically in office dynamics – without making it an outright criticism of one system or country in particular. By plunging his audience into one man’s paranoia, Morina uses these elements and the torment of being the Outsider to reflect on wider issues. As such, Exil works as both a suspenseful whodunnit told from the perspective of a man trapped within his own point of view, and a deeply unsettling social commentary about the basic mistrust people have towards foreigners and how decent individuals can rapidly become a threatening force within a group.
Exil (Exile) / Directed by Visar Morina (Germany, Belgium, Kosovo, 2020), with Mišel Matičević, Sandra Hüller. Starts August 20.