Catherine Ellsberg ’16
While watching Geboren in Absurdistan last Thursday night as part of the spring 2013 German Film Series held at Amherst College, I thought of something my favorite film critic, Richard Brody, once wrote: “There’s no pleasure in not liking a movie, and even less pleasure in writing about displeasure.” Throughout the film, I kept trying to find some sort of redemptive quality – something, anything, to pull the film out of the breaches of disaster. Unlike Brody, however, I don’t quite mind writing about displeasure.
Nancy, a first-year Amherst student in the audience, claimed that this film was not a “stereotypical German film.” If you were wondering what the criteria is for said stereotype, anything depressing and grim seemed to suffice. I’ll give Nancy that at the very least. Geboren in Absurdistan, translated into Born in Absurdistan, is by far the most cheerful film I have seen recently during this winter season of Amour and Zero Dark Thirty. The 1999 film, directed by Persians Houchang and Tom Dariusch Allahyari, seems buzzed on its own artificial sugar high at times, so light is its message and plot.
This plot manages to be both simple and ridiculous at once – a hearty challenge. Starring the wonderful Austrian actor Karl Markovics of The Counterfeiters, the film has at least a nice, enthusiastic cast. The film takes place in an Austria buckling down on its immigration laws and tells the story of xenophobic Stefan Strohmayer (Markovics) and his pregnant wife, Marion (Julia Sternberger). When Marion gives birth to baby Karli, Stefan is overjoyed – so happy, indeed, that he begins to dance while peeing at the hospital urinal.
Things begin to go from odd to just crazy from this point on, however – and mind you, “normal” existed only for about 20 minutes. While the happy couple cuddles their newborn baby, Stefan becomes agitated and angry when a Turkish woman and her infant move into the same hospital room – along with her entire, bustling family. He insists on the family’s removal, but before they are forced to leave, two nurses take the infants during the screaming match. As the nurses zigzag throughout the room, it becomes clear that neither of the infants have been given name tags. Inevitably, this being the comedy it’s purported to be, when the infants are returned to their mothers, they are accidentally switched: the Turkish newborn, Heiri, is given to the xenophobic Stefan, while the Austrian Karli is given to the Turkish Dömnez family.
Chaos ensues, naturally, when Stefan finds out the truth several months later. To make matters more complicated, through a series of mistakes, the Turkish couple has been deported back to Turkey. Proceeding with the most implausible concept ever, Stefan and Marion track down the couple in a rural village in Turkey in an attempt to switch back the babies. The final showdown consists of Stefan and Marion smuggling the couple and their baby back into Austria in their cramped car.
If this sounds slightly confusing, slightly bizarre and slightly entertaining, you would be right. Spencer Adams of Amherst found the “film’s campy approach to black comedy was off-putting though often … sort of fun.” And he isn’t wrong. The film is unmistakably and charmingly stylized, with lots of high-angle shots, zoom-ins, shaky hand-held camera shots and humorous panning for raunchy effect.
But when it comes down to it, though the film attempts to propagate a feeling of common good and kinship, the very title itself does it no justice. Absurdistan? The playful name reeks of stereotype – the idea of the “other” as foreign and a subject of ridicule.
Let’s hope the other films in this series are more successful.