Around the middle of German Lessons by Pavel G. Vesnakov, just as we have begun to realize that Nikola's (Julian Vergov) resolve to leave Bulgaria is increasingly shaken, a parallel with a completely different film emerges - Theo Angelopoulos' Landscape in the Mist (1988). While in Angelopoulos' case the metaphor cleverly elevates the experience beyond the harsh ordeals faced by the two children, Vesnakov doesn’t turn away from harsh realities. While in Landscape in the Mist the father is the absent one, in German Lessons he is busy ruining his son's life. However, both films project Germany as a mysterious place that nevertheless carries a particular certainty. The certainty of imagination.
It is a curious fact that Landscape in the Mist was released seven years after Greece’s accession to the European Union. Exactly seven years separate the original script of German Lessons from 2007, the year Bulgaria joined the EU. This is just a coincidence, of course, but nothing prevents us from following the speculative claim that these first seven years are the time needed to believe and debunk the global dream of solidarity, at the centre of which stands precisely Germany as the "engine" of Europe. Yet, despite the personal nature of German Lessons, its director does not deny the broader context of the refugee crisis and subsequently Brexit as a source of inspiration, just as Theo Angelopoulos abandons the well-known Mediterranean landscapes to show a different, more political Greece - a Balkan Greece - where commerce and its characters follow the same murky routes.
"You know what's funny, kids? You don't seem to care how time passes, but I know you're in a hurry to leave. It's like you're not going anywhere, but you're going somewhere anyway." This unforgettable address of the traveling stranger to the children in A Landscape in the Mist could quite easily be directed to Nikola. He is left with no place to be, and therefore has no choice but go, whether or not he knows where he is going. And if German Lessons is consistent and even a little overindulgent about the inevitability of leaving - the failed dialogue between parent, ex-wife and children is obvious, and Nikola' anger is physically felt - the film addresses the equally frustrating utopia. The lessons are a monotonous repetition of the days of the week in German with the help of a self-teaching guide. After each successive Monday, recited on tape, it becomes clear that Nikola's future is just as impossible as his present.
Are the parrot-fashion repetitions of unrelated words in a foreign language an adequate image of the contemporary fate of Bulgarian cinema? We have often heard how things should be done "like the Germans" and in general recognition in Bulgaria is not absolute, but sounds like a comparison with Germany, although we often have no idea what is meant by "Germany". This impostor syndrome has its manifestations in our cinema as well. The quest for integration and recognition by the more successful creates at least two increasingly distinct phenomena. One is the attempt to "Bulgarianize" some films, whose aim is to shine as something very authentic, designed to satisfy the exotic taste of the bored Western European viewer, and why not stir up his guilt towards those he, as the "engine" of our European community, has forgotten to take care of. This way of thinking actually leads to greater provincialisation of Bulgarian cinema, as it thus knowingly stands in a marginal position, rather than seeking the dignified and equal treatment it deserves as part of the wider European context. In these films there is usually a deliberate amount of violence, darkness and horror, but mostly a pronounced insistence that "this is how it is here". "Here" being at once very close to "Europe", yet ever so far from its way of life.
The second phenomenon is conflict, more and more pronounced, albeit to some extent tacit, between the directors and films that have not received recognition outside, and the others. The accumulation of successes is a sort of test of community cohesion, which so far does not look promising. Success is increasingly becoming a curse, as the entire tragicomic story of the delay in the filming of German Lessons demonstrates аnd while it has nothing to do with its cinematic qualities, it's a confirmation of the same lack of place experienced by its protagonist. In spite of his contradictory human nature, Nicholas undoubtedly has good intentions. But amid the stilted atmosphere of perpetual gazing back into the past (which is deliberately denied to us as viewers) settles a constant sense of paranoia. Stronger than any plot point, this feeling screams from the very depths - what can I do to succeed?
The paranoia is also evident in Orlin Ruevsky's camera work, long but mostly handheld shots - there's no getting away from them, yet there's no clearly focused center. The spirit of the final day before departure, when one's torn between balance sheets and plans, and there are many urgent tasks yet to be done, is the most suitable modus operandi for a person who will never be able to get his life in order, and so is left with trying to be good to those closest to him. But the real problem is that goodness is trumped, not by any villainous characters, but by everyday life itself - lack of time for forgiveness, missed conversations and lessons, tiny moments of anger, poor luck.
Another valuable geographical record is that the film can be labeled a "road movie through Sofia". Although German Lessons is dedicated to the escape from everyday life - a unifying feature of the road movie genre - the most memorable images are of everyday life itself. Nikola's fate is upended not because he has experienced his instructive journey, but on the contrary because he has looked at familiar peripheral landscapes. Nicola's destiny is turned around not because he has lived his enlightening journey, but on the contrary - because he has taken a look at the familiar peripheral landscapes. Sofia plays a dual role - it is a very concrete and personal place, but it is also a city in which collective memory is imprinted and shared nostalgia can be felt.
In this respect, the film is not a slave to its nationality, but solely to the personal biases of Pavel G. Vesnakov. It's tough and downright unpleasant as far as themes go, but by no means pretentious, because it is at once austere, and аll the while driven dynamically by the action. It would be a breakthrough for Bulgarian cinema if it oriented itself towards a similar service to filmmaking standards and abandoned false dilemmas such as "festival cinema for abroad" or "watchable cinema for Bulgaria". It no longer makes sense to believe in Germany.
This publication is supported by Bulgarian National Culture Fund