“What do you want from me?”
In great Lost Highway-era David Lynch fashion, visual artist turned filmmaker Akiz‘s Der Nachtmahr switches from linear reality to seamlessly disorienting crosscuts between life and dream. It occurs when soon-to-be eighteen year old Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) passes out drunk while peeing in the woods outside a secret rave full of heavy electronica and piercing white strobe light (a disclaimer cautions epileptics while cajoling everyone else to increase the volume). We don’t realize she’s fainted—and honestly this dizzy spell might be the nightmare instead of the tiny embryo-man that looks like Kristen Bell‘s beau from Yeasayer‘s “Madder Red” while acting like a daemon from Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials—until after being hit by a car. The same car she watched mowing someone down on a friend’s phone.
Confused yet? Good. That’s part of the charm because Tina is too. Akiz ensures that we never know what’s real by transporting us directly to the aftermath of craziness or passing through a jigsaw filter of past footage rewound as a sort of wormhole to present hallucination. Is Tina the only one who can see and hear this little “creature”? What about when her parents (Arnd Klawitter and Julika Jenkins) call the cops to remove it from their house? Whether or not this thing is a manifestation of Tina’s mind or a living, breathing entity of bumbling innocence, however, doesn’t excuse it from being a literal monkey on her back. Eighteen is an important demarcation in our lives and Tina is barely holding on throughout the process.
You wouldn’t know it at first with she and best friends Babs (Sina Tkotsch) and Moni (Lynn Femme) gyrating on the dance floor, but popularity is hardly enough to suppress Tina’s anxiety towards womanhood. She’s super sensitive about her looks when crush Adam (Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht) is around, gets catty with Julia (Lucia Luciano) who constantly pokes fun at her age by asking if her mother knows where she is, and desperately tries to play hard despite her waning tolerance because “coolness” is paramount to health. It’s no wonder Tina’s grotesquely cute friend pops up in her kitchen offering cracked eggs as a silent peace offering. He’s the physical representation of her insecurities and naivety, walking blind through a new world he/she has yet to truly embrace.
They share a telekinetic bond wherein whatever happens to one also occurs to the other. “Creature” eats eggs and Tina breaks out in a rash; he cuts his tongue on a razor and she wakes up with blood pouring from her mouth. It’s a hellish few days because no one’s going to approach a hairless freak crawling on all fours with its head tucked between its arms for cheek pinching. No, seeing him is to scream in fright, grab something heavy, and commence hitting him with punishing force until unconscious. And that goes for them being one and the same too: to see this defenseless lamb led to slaughter is to glimpse beneath Tina’s carefully constructed façade or normalcy. Such an intrusion would precipitate self-hate and possibly self-immolation.
The question that’s most intriguing is how much of what’s onscreen is truth. It’s one thing to accept that we’re viewing imaginative flights of fancy from within Tina’s mind, but a complete other to realize everything is happening save the “creature” like in Fight Club. Perhaps she’s fractured her psyche so permanently that she’s acting out both characters to the horror of those surrounding her. We see a knowingly smug smile as she holds the thing in her arms; everyone else the deranged grin of a young teen pantomiming the guttural noises and actions it makes. This puts a wild spin on the proceedings as the merging of fact and fiction proves a hybrid of sanity’s polar ends. The farther she devolves, the faster those she trusted turn.
But while this all sounds like the perfect makings of a darkly serious coming-of-age metaphor, Der Nachtmahr is actually quite funny. It’s intentionally so too so don’t think I’m talking about nervous laughter or bad production level laughter. Akiz’s visual style is polished and his rhythm to the dance scenes and editing a conscious choice to mirror the internal struggle’s emotional crescendo. Where the humor enters is with the “creature” because he is so strangely adorable and endearing. He isn’t haunting Tina as much as reminding her about who she is. If anything he wants to help by providing love like a pet would. He offers her food, seeks to caress her while she sleeps, and truly comes off as more docile than an inanimate object.
So her terror at the beginning is self-inflicted. It’s terror at the countdown to eighteen and the vast unknown awaiting. When those around her see it and seek to destroy it, the scene is really just Tina believing a nightmarish hypothetical that no one will accept her as an adult. There’ll keep her at arm’s length, peering on in disgust or mockery refusing to condone her making the transition. To therefore see her embrace it—seek it out and willfully carry it into public—is to watch her blossom with strength. In the end we’re all that little monster of fear hidden deep down inside. Only after accepting this fact and allowing the world to see that our shortcomings are what make us individuals can we finally breathe.
Courtesy of TIFF