Berlinale 2021: 'Je Suis Karl' is a Chilling Story of Modern Day Fascism
by Alex Billington
March 5, 2021
Be afraid, be very afraid. There's something going on out there, something stirring in the shadows, and it's something we need to be worried about. Fascism is back. It's reared its ugly head too many times in too many countries recently. And filmmakers definitely have something to say about this, especially German filmmakers. Je Suis Karl just premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival, the latest feature from German filmmaker Christian Schwochow (of November Child, Cracks in the Shell, West, Paula) and screenwriter Thomas Wendrich, and it's an unnerving, frightening, realistic portrayal of the rise of fascism. From the moment it started, I immediately had knots in my stomach, knowing what was coming. Much like watching Titanic or United 93, you know what's about to happen and I felt that intense dread watching it all play out.
Schwochow's Je Suis Karl is about the rise of a "European youth movement" called Regeneration, which is basically a rebranding of fascism and Neo-Nazism with a more social media-friendly name. The film follows a young woman named Maxi, played by Luna Wedler, who lives in Berlin with her family. When a bomb kills everyone in her family except her and her father, she loses all sense of place. Until she's wooed by a dashing chiseled-jaw German boy named Karl, played by Jannis Niewöhner, who is actually one of the outspoken leaders of this new "European youth movement". Soon she's caught up in their plans, in love with him and following him around Europe, and her story becomes one of their carefully orchestrated emotional pleas to get white Europeans to rise up and join them. Sound scary? Sound crazy? Sound familiar? It is. It's hard to even review these kind of films because it's their breathless message that is so potent and necessary.
I saw another review already describe this film as "familiar" in a negative way, and aside from the love story in it being "familiar", perhaps that familiarity they're feeling is that this is happening for real all around us. The rise of fascism isn't just some fairytale, or some movie we watch and say "wow that's scary but glad it's just a movie." It's actually happening. Although this is just a fictionalized version of that kind of recruitment story, and yeah the subliminal tactics are not necessarily real, the idea behind "this is what is happening" is something that we need to keep saying/hearing because it keeps growing. It's right fucking there in front of us and so many are seduced by it. That's how it works! They use emotions and they use popularity to their advantage, they use social media and cameras to manipulate events and rile people up. Turn that fear into anger, turn that anger into fascism. And this film about this rise is tough to watch, but damnit it has a point.
Je Suis Karl is the second German film I've seen recently (also: And Tomorrow the Entire World from last year's Venice Film Festival) that very specifically and powerfully addresses this return of fascism. At first I was wondering, why tell a story about the right-wing extremists, why give them any chance to be seen? Well, Schwochow very clearly shows us how it's all bullshit, how it's all orchestrated madness, how everything is manipulation for their (political) gain. Beyond that, however, this is an attempt to show us what the Nazi party would look like nowadays. There's always comparisons being thrown out every day, but most of these are dismissed, because come on, that was history and it was horrible. Sure, but isn't this how a modern day Third Reich would get its message out, gain supporters, and capitalize on the fear in people's minds? Aren't these the tactics they'd use? Isn't this how they would sound? I think that's exactly why they made this film.
The finale of the film is truly harrowing, both cinematically and thematically. It's a reminder that we have to stop this rise as soon as possible before it gets out of hand, before their obvious parlor tricks will convince enough people to lose their minds and become full-on fascists. As for the film? It is a thrill to watch. That underlying dread, combined with the unease of watching a woman seduced by love and by relief, makes it a riveting and discomforting film to watch. But I usually enjoy these kind of films when they're done right, and Schwochow has done an exceptional job making this film feel believable and realistic, and feel intense to watch as well. It should stir something up inside of you, it should leave you thinking about the state of the world, and what's happening. This is kind of necessary filmmaking is the kind that we need more of these days; even if it is familiar, even if it is a bit cheesy, we need these stories to slap some sense into humanity.