Bones and Names

The past weekend saw the closing of Berlinale 2023, one of the “big three” film festivals in the world. I had the chance to travel to Berlin last week and stayed for three days, seeing a total of 8 films, including the festival’s opening film She Came to Me and the world premiere of Manodrome starring Jesse Eisenberg and Adrien Brody. However, the film that struck me the most and which drew a perfect ending to my weekend at the Berlinale was a German film by the name of Knochen und Namen (Bones and Names), whose premiere I was lucky enough to attend.

The film premiered at the Kino International in Berlin under the Berlinale’s Perspektive Deutsches Kino section. Seeing the audience give a joyous standing ovation after the screening, it was obvious that the film did not fail to impress the largely German but also somewhat international crowd that had gathered to see this directorial debut of German actor Fabian Stumm.

“Personal but not autobiographical”, as Stumm described during the Q&A, the film was written with inspiration from his own life and offers a humorous yet tender take on the more profound conundrums of life: love, death, connections. In addition to writing and directing this feature film, Stumm also stars as one of the leading roles alongside a talented group of colleagues he had previously worked with. His role, Boris, is an actor who has recently been cast in a new film by an eccentric but ambitious Francophone director. As rehearsals drag on, Boris develops complex romantic feelings when he sinks into the script and starts to mix up reality and fiction. Boris’s boyfriend, Jonathan (Knut Berger), is a writer who attempts to reconcile with his fears of loss and death by tackling them head-on in his writing. Their relationship, which had reached a point of stagnation, begins to fracture as both men struggle to deal with the emotional distance that the new turns in their creative careers have brought about between them. 

The story follows developments in the couple’s relationship but also expands to include their family, friends, and colleagues. It is inspiring to see the film examine how people negotiate their way through the intricate complexities of life and try to find their place. Jonathan’s niece, Josie (Alma Meyer-Prescott), adds a playful note to the film as she begins to test the waters and acquaint herself with the rules of life through mischief.

Notably, the scenes in the film are often portrayed more theatrically than realistically, giving the impression of a play within a play, and blurs the boundary between art and life for the viewers, just as it gradually does for the protagonists. Moreover, they are largely staged before clean, dull, and measured backdrops that enlarge the everyday contexts they are set in. The use of classical music for the soundtrack is also a surprisingly good fit. Precise visuals and matching audio combined to form a beautiful film and added immensely to the humor and the ambiance of the story.

Despite profoundly questioning and juxtaposing philosophical themes, Stumm has managed to keep it light and entertaining by crafting seemingly absurd situations and splattering timely pauses between simple yet clever dialogues for the satire to sink in. Though at certain points this makes the film feel slow and the sequences messy or scattered, it nevertheless generated continuous, heartfelt laughter from the audience. According to Stumm, the writing process was almost like therapy, and I could say the same about the viewing experience. In contrast to the cold, distant backdrops, the film finishes on a ringing, heartwarming note that brings a smile to your face, if that smile wasn’t already there since the very first scene. 

I was surprised to learn that this was a low-budget film with most of the money coming from the cast and crew. Stumm jokingly said during the Q&A that he made the film with a “Dispokredit” (overdraft) and that although they all looked glamorous on stage, he knew that when he went home, he would be broke. Jokes aside, I believe if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that small productions are perfectly able to trump the big bucks (Everything Everywhere All at Once, for example). Having been largely disappointed by the previous screenings I attended at the Berlinale, this last film left me feeling euphoric – emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually.

Bones and Names is a playful exploration of the human condition, delightfully presented with phenomenal acting, a wonderful script, and stunning cinematography. It is set to be released in Germany (and hopefully internationally) in the fall. The rowdy reaction from the Berlin audience did make it slightly difficult for me to unpack all the details. But rest assured, I will be rushing to the cinema for a rewatch the moment it hits the shelves. And I hope that maybe you would, too.

Written by Isabella Pang

Isabella Pang

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