Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger finds that a foreign B-movie is still a B-movie.
Harmony has a price…
What happens when a depressed town pours its heart, hopes, and economic future into the success of an underdog sports team? Basically, the same stuff that happens on every other soap opera.
Facts of the Case
Sylvia (Johanna Klante, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace) and Kerstin (Annett Renneberg, Peas at 5:30) are the best friends in the world. Sylvia is the cute, straitlaced, well-loved blonde, while Kerstin is the darker, edgier one. Kerstin's bad-girl antics hit home for Sylvia when Kerstin's roving eye lands on Sylvia's boyfriend, Micha (Florian Lukas, Good Bye Lenin!).
Sylvia doesn't notice at first. Like the rest of her economically depressed East German town, she is obsessed with the star forward of their semi-pro soccer team. Ade Banjo (Michael Ojake, Tatort—Exil!) is an African misfit among the otherwise ethnically homogeneous townspeople. Though they whisper slurs in private, they publicly embrace "Blondi" as their ticket to fame.
While the adults meet behind closed doors to discuss how to exploit the team's newfound success, Sylvia, Kerstin, and Micha engage in their own game of sexual politics and betrayal. Currents of wayward passion will come to a head just in time for the soccer finals. Will the town survive the fallout?
The cover of the Liberated Zone DVD boldly quotes Bill Stamets of the Chicago Sun Times: "A Frantic Comedy!" The back cover copy starts off with "This sexually liberated comedy…" You might assume that Liberated Zone is a comedy. It definitely has funny moments, as many foreign and domestic dramas do. But I'm hard pressed to call it a comedy.
In fact, I'm hard pressed to label Liberated Zone at all. Is it a hard-hitting look at economic depression? An exposé of racism in small-town culture? A sex farce? A teen melodrama? Liberated Zone is all of those things in turn, but never exerts itself too strenuously in any given genre. Failure to commit gives Liberated Zone a tone of blithe dissonance, which is the only constant.
Norbert Baumgarten's first feature film has its moments, which explains why it gained some recognition in German film festivals. He achieves tension in some places, wry humor in others. He also manages a disarming mix of freshness and grit that keeps us in a constant state of re-evaluation. The film shows promise, but the promise isn't fully realized. In the end, it falls back on television plots, television acting, and television aesthetic too often to emerge as a feature film. That isn't completely unexpected, as much of Baumgarten's cast comes from a television background.
Johanna Klante is watchable, and her combination of innocence and responsibility is pleasant. But she's put in the same basic situation once too often, asked to project the same doe-eyed secret longing too many times. By the fifth time she stands still in a crowd and stares longingly into Blondi's knowing eyes, we've gotten the picture. (On the other hand, Liberated Zone recycles footage so often that it might actually be the same reaction shot shown repeatedly.) Kerstin is never even given a chance; she lives in melodramatic territory from the opening scene onward. The only actors to escape the doldrums of television cliché are Michael Ojake and Florian Lukas: Ojake because he's cast throughout as the town's exotic tabula rasa, Lukas because he has real acting chops and screen presence that shine through no matter what he's asked to do. I loved him in Good Bye Lenin!, and he is almost as compelling in Liberated Zone.
These characters subsist in a plot that shifts gears on a whim, surrounded by cameras that speed up for no apparent reason, within timelines that move back and forth in an arbitrary, but nonetheless familiar, pattern. Very little about Liberated Zone is surprising, except for the regular sense of confusion when a subplot is dropped—or, better yet, extended well beyond the point where we get it.
The DVD is on a par with the feature. The special features menu has three options: Trailer, Movie with Subtitles, and Main Menu. I love it when subtitles are marketed as a special feature—are there any Region 1 releases without either an English track or English subtitles? The trailer is a low-budget affair, with no voice-overs, effects, or subtitles. It is simply a parade of scene snippets in a row with the film's title at the end.
One thing trailers are good for is providing a point of contrast for the main feature's transfer quality. The trailer is usually scratchier, blurrier, and less saturated than the main feature. In this case, the two are identical. Liberated Zone doesn't have dust, scratches, or edge enhancement. On the other hand, it doesn't have detail, contrast, or color depth either. The image is blurry, and it disconcertingly jerks about during pans. The audio is about the same, flat with a bad case of wind noise in the mikes during outdoor scenes.
If you enjoy comfortable, conservative dramas that suggest problems while skirting explicit sex or violence, Liberated Zone is a nice change of pace with a German aesthetic. There isn't anything objectionable here, and it provides a mix of laughs and tension from an attractive cast. Liberated Zone would make a nice starter film for people just beginning to explore foreign movies.
Not too guilty, not too innocent.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Life Size Entertainment
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