Appellate Judge Tom Becker searched his Berlitz library but could not find the phrase "spanking de Deutsch."
Elsa: Where are you?
Jan: Inside of myself.
Elsa: What do you feel there?
Elsa (Maren Kroymann) is a probation officer who works with troubled teenagers. Her own teenaged daughter has just moved out, and Elsa's relationship with her husband seems more polite than passionate.
Elsa has a new charge, 16-year-old Jan (Kostja Ullmann), a quiet boy who takes an obsessive interest in her. He follows her around, offering himself to her, telling her she can do what she wants with him.
Appalled and annoyed, she gets him an internship in her husband's garage, mainly so Jan will have something to occupy himself and spend less time trailing her. Her husband takes a liking to the boy, however, and soon Jan is joining them for dinners.
Jan's combination of vulnerability and persistence touches something in Elsa, and she finally agrees to meet him. They go to an abandoned building.
What transpires isn't a romantic or especially sexual encounter, but it is the first of many times they meet and slip into roles. Elsa is a disciplinarian; Jan needs to be punished for the transgressions of his young life. Perhaps if he was older, and she less sincere; perhaps if she had initiated this, and he was an innocent, a "victim"; perhaps, then, we might say that Punish Me is the story of an older woman who enters into a sado-masochistic relationship with a teenager.
Somehow, though, that sordid description doesn't do justice to this low-budget German film. Punish Me is an intriguing short story about two people making an unlikely connection.
Elsa is by no means a femme fatale. She is 50 and looks every day of it, not unattractive, but a bit hard, a bit weary. Jan is a good-looking boy-man. Were this another film, you could easily see him trading on his appearance for cash.
There is nothing particularly glamorous about their game. They are not tricked out in fetish gear or surrounded by props. There are neither the trappings nor the expected outcome of a traditional S&M experience.
Director Angelina Maccarone (Fremde Haut) does not dissect this relationship. There are no flashbacks or confessionals that examine the motivations or even the feelings of these characters. Maccarone presents her story in a direct, non-exploitative way and asks us to watch as the events play out. We are allowed to draw our own conclusions, and we learn about these people through their actions and sometimes contradictory reactions. It reminds us that in an age when people vie for airtime to discuss their social and sexual peculiarities, not everything "outside of the norm" has a simple, black-and-white explanation, nor one that needs to be hashed over ad nauseam. That we're in the dark about what these characters want from each other adds a nice tension.
Both Kroymann and Ullmann give believable, affecting performances. We know this relationship is both wrong and hopeless, but we want to see it succeed—or at least, we don't want to see either of them hurt. Even though they are engaging in "kinky" activities, there is something strangely tender and wholesome about their interactions.
In supporting roles, Moritz Grove is fine as another troubled youth, and Marcus Voellenklee very good as Elsa's husband.
The film is very low-budget; shot in grainy black-and-white, it has a verité feel to it. The transfer looks a little rough, but that probably has to do with the source. Audio is very good, but be warned: You cannot access audio or subtitle options from the remote, so you have to go into "set up" before watching the movie.
The only extras are two versions of the North American trailer and some stills.
Punish Me is not going to appeal to everyone. Although Jan and Elsa communicate through a kind of sexuality, this is not a sex movie. There are no scenes of graphic reveling or the kind of nudge-winking that are mainstays of films about alternative relationships. It's an offbeat and touching observation that reminds us that at the end of the day, we really don't know what the night has in store for us.
Elsa and Jan may be guilty of many things, but Punish Me is refreshingly innocent.
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