A tender view of tender people

in 35th FilmFest Munich

by Luuk Imhann

There is a moment, quite early in the film Ugly & Blind (Blind & Hässlich), where a girl pretends to be blind to get an apartment in Berlin, and you immediately think this is one of those comedies with a simple premise that works for laughs only. But then, something happens: the simple comedy turns into a film with a heart, a film with something to say about society, about people and how we behave towards each other (and ourselves). I’m going to talk about that.

To be fair, you could have known this was the case, as the young and promising Tom Lass co- wrote the script, co-produced, directed and played the leading male part. The credits show you a man with a plan, although much of what you see on screen is improvised.

So, Ugly & Blind - FIPRESCI prizewinner of the Munich Film Festival in 2017 - gives you a proper comedy setup and then explores the intricacies of the story and the characters, and not just the laughs. A girl (Naomi Achternbusch, tremendous) has run away from home and looks up an old friend who is blind. They go on an apartment hunt (hilarious scenes) and find out what we all already know: there is no place for youngsters in this world. So she pretends to be blind, gets an apartment by playing the victim role properly, and gets taught by her friend how to act blind during the day. All’s well that end’s well, you think. But then she comes across a bridge, and notices a weird and estranged boy (Tom Lass) wanting to commit suicide. She prevents that, they fall in love, but he believes her lie and so she has to continue living it 24/7.

Lass shot the film with blind actors, old Berlin buddies, and shows us that a good film doesn’t have to take you to another world; it can just show you your backyard and by doing so be just as (and maybe more) confronting. It is a way of life beyond our way of seeing the world. The film takes people that we normally look upon as victims and puts them in situations where we find they are so like us it is uncanny. They lie, they cheat, they fall in love with the wrong person, but as you cannot choose your fate, they have to live it.

This goes for the girl pretending to be blind as well as for the boy she falls in love with. He is, in the best way that I can put it, not of this world. He is a permanent stranger, not normal enough to get a job like the rest of us, but even though his understanding of the world is shallow, his love for it is whole. And so you think in the early scenes – him lost in the woods as he is lost in life – that he is, in a way, incomplete, though the rest of the film shows you the, to be fair: overly romantic, option that he is more complete than any of us. When authorities find him, the house he is put in shows two other boys not of this world, and the comedic ways in which Lass shows them really speaks for the film. We don’t laugh at them, we never do. We laugh at the way they make life work for themselves and the absurdly logical way they go about it. You start questioning yourself: why don’t I live like this? Why don’t I make my choices in life based on what I really want, on what I truly feel that is a yearning deep inside me, instead of all this society bullshit?

The film makes an outsider of all of us and does so with a tender view of tender people. It makes you think of the great Keats poem Ode to a Nightingale: “Though the dull brain perplexes and retards / Already with thee! tender is the night, / And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, / Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays; / But here there is no light, / Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown / Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.’ God, how I love a film that makes you question yourself and think of great poems by great poets long gone. We are all, in a way, not of this world, and if only we could be less, forever less, not more.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson
© FIPRESCI 2017

Luuk Imhann (1986) is a Dutch author (Paradise, Querido, 2016), playwright and film journalist. He writes film articles and reviews for Cine.nl.

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