Exberliner are on the Lido for the 76th Venice Film Festival, and opening the Orizzonti sidebar is Pelikanblut (Pelican Blood), the only film from a German director to have been selected this year. Starring Nina Hoss, it has the potential to be a breakout hit. Here’s our first look review…
No German directors were selected in the Venice Competition this year. No need to pick up your Heugabel though, as Katrin Gebbe brilliantly kicks off the Orizzonti section, which runs parallel to the main competition, with her distinctive, thought-provoking and at times harrowing sophomore feature, Pelikanblut (Pelican Blood).
It tells the story of Wiebke (Nina Hoss), a single mother and horse trainer who decides to adopt a second child, a five-year old Bulgarian orphan with a troubled past. Her first adoptive daughter, Nikolina (Adelina-Constance Ocleppo), is initially thrilled at the prospect of welcoming another child into the household. Things, however, take a turn when Raya (Katerina Lipovska) soon reveals herself to be a parenting nightmare, a liability to herself…but mostly others. Could her violent outbursts and inability to forge empathetic connections be explained by a reactive attachment disorder, or could her increasingly worrisome behaviour have something to do with the Babadookian scribbles she chooses to decorate her bedroom walls with?
Genre splicing is a tough exercise to convincingly pull off, but Katrin Gebbe proves she’s in complete control of her layered story. Most thrillingly, she decides not to play it safe, admirably blending varying influences into a tight narrative that understands that trauma is never a monolithic experience but a complex topic. Her script daringly tackles the anguish felt by the protagonists through several genre lenses, with the filmmaker gradually peppering the initially social-realist drama with narrative tropes belonging to psychological thrillers. Gebbe also teases the supernatural for allegorical purposes, and the ensuing mishmash invokes Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher in the way it addresses the taboo of how “problem” and “special needs” children can become irreversibly lost in a system that doesn’t know how to deal with them, as well as Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin through behavioural studies, medical therapy and the way Raya could get knife-happy at any given moment.
Crucial to the film’s impact is the way the tiptoes the line between these various genres without committing all-out; this lends the narrative a calculated sense of unpredictability, as the filmmaker puts her distinct twist on the bad seed / evil kiddie routine, subverting expectations via potent ambiguity and never falling into the trap of making sweeping statements about adoption. One key third act scene – which shall remain unspoilt – revels in keeping the audience guessing, as cinematographer Moritz Schultheiss stunningly instils palpable tension through an exquisitely disquieting snapshot that leaves the audience drawing their own conclusions about that may or may not be in the room.
While the pelican imagery that gives the film its title is sparingly used – a mosaic in the Bulgarian orphanage depicting the ultimate motherly sacrifice to save the young serves as a wince-inducing harbinger of bloody things to come – the same cannot be said about the repeated horse training metaphor, which is stretched to breaking point. It’s a minor wobble which, alongside the film’s oscillating genre turns, which won’t be to everyone’s liking. The final act in particular might prove hard to swallow, when the delicate balancing act tips less towards psychological concerns and more in favour of all-out atmospherics. That said, you can never fault its ambition and it’s happy to live and die as its own beast. Any potential crinkles are ironed out in no small part thanks to the electric performances from Nina Hoss, here full of controlled intensity, and her young co-stars Adelina-Constance Ocleppo and Katerina Lipovska. They ensure that when believability is threatened, the human component remains emotionally relatable enough to keep a sense of outright silliness at bay. Lipovska deserves particular plaudits under Gebbe’s assured direction; much like System Crasher’s impact rested on Helena Zengel’s wee shoulders, Pelican Blood needed the central disturbing element to be credible and threatening, without trotting out the overdone demonic sprog routine. Lipovska proves to be perfect in the role.
Without a release date set for German screens as of yet, Gebbe’s film is truly one to keep an eye on: it has blown the Competition titles out of the water thus far, but it also confidently stands alongside Carolina Hellsgård‘s recently released Endzeit as one of the year’s best German-language genre films.