Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 17, 2019 10:21 pm 
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Good trip

Hans Weingartner's 303 is a youthful two-hander, a travel-dialogue slow-burn romance on a summer trip in a classic Mercedes van (the "303" of the title) from Berlin to Portugal - a simple and conventional film full of dialogue on the order of Richard Linklater's "Before" pictures. It's not as distinctive or stylish as they, but more heartfelt and perhaps more emotionally satisfying. The best parts are the passionate debates, like dorm room bull sessions, so lively and so well acted you may mistake this for a documentary, though Weingartner has said in interviews that everything is closely scripted. Key to the success of this seemingly drab formula is the casting. The pair are university students Jule (Mala Emde) and Jan (Anton Spieker), whom one might mistake for a young Kate Winslet and Heath Ledger. They are adorable and their chemistry is palpable. When the intimacy finally comes it's prepared for with real-time pace, never for a minute hurried, subtle and exciting. But, as I said, it's their debates that count most. And this is Weingartner's way: as I noticed fourteen years ago in his The Edukators (2004), which focuses on violent revolutionary pranksters, and yet winds up seeming more about the political debates than the action.

There's some preparation for the trip. We see Jule fail her final oral in biology, where she says she's not good at memorizing stuff. Jan's academic year ends differently: his professor tells him his work in political science was as good as the best, but unfortunately, the fellowship he'd need to take his studies to the next level has been awarded to somebody else. She sets off southward in her big, roomy 303, which later we learn had belonged to her late brother. He goes hitchhiking, and she's the third person he asks for a ride at a petrol station. A truck driver with taste in music he can't stand has accepted him as a rider, but he tries his luck with her, and she says yes.

He starts out right off holding forth about stuff. They're both 23, just a few years till 27, he says, when all the "cool people" check out. Not that he's for suicide, he rambles on, and in fact he's intensely opposed to it and lays out his reasons. This somehow rubs her very much the wrong way, and she changes her mind and orders him to leave at the next rest stop. Only, they turn up at the same stop further on when she's in trouble, and he is there just in time to save her from a predatory older man. This causes a reconsideration, and Jule takes Jan in again. He's delighted. A comfortable ride, a pretty girl: who wouldn't be?

The big argument that goes on between them now for many kilometers becomes they way initially they relate to each other, and we to them. It's a typical male-female, pessimist-optimist contrast that's set up, and flush with data and observations as any uplifting op-ed. He argues for a primitive view of man. No love can last beyond six months, he insists, and mankind is meant to make wars, compete violently and be his cave man self. Male-female relations, he's sure, are all by the scent, by contrasts, and for sex and procreation. She rejects that, and insists love is a real and lasting thing,. She cites the Cro-Magnons, who she says surpassed the Neanderthals and developed into Homo Sapiens because of their capacity to cooperate, not win fights. Weingartner is much invested in this stuff, and the fascination of the dialogue is that it's not an excuse, as it would be in most films, to develop the relationship: that comes along almost incidentally. We would not stick with these debates if they didn't seem so convincing and detailed, and if Emde and Spieker didn't deliver them with such disarming naturalness and conviction, and interact with such charming spontaneity as they do so.

Sometimes Weingartner seems like a case of arrested development, but he might argue that we all are. Anyway he has said that he easily identifies with twenty-three-year-olds. There is a logic to the suspended love action. Jule sees Jan as not just company but protection. She wants it to stay that way, and not develop into something dangerous in itself. He doesn't want to mess up his ride by imposing himself upon her after it has turned out they get on so well and she has kept asking him to stay aboard. They become like a travel team, almost like a well-established couple, the naturalness and intimacy unacknowledged because neither wants to spoil it by calling attention to it. This is, of course, unlike Linklater's "Before" films in taking place not over hours but days. They high-five each other as they pass from country to country, Germany to France, France to Spain. He shares the driving. They both sleep in the van, shop together.

At length they approach their two destinations, his in Spain, hers, Portugal. He is on his way to meet his birth father for the first time. He was seventeen before he realized he was being raised by a stepdad. This could be momentous, though he says he's not nervous (he is). She's on her way to Portugal to see her boyfriend, who has been living there. This is a fraught encounter too. And she has had a secret, which now Jan knows about. The delayed ending is quietly intense and touching. See if you don't breathe with Jan as he waits all night in the poetic street of a Portuguese town.

Identification with youth notwithstanding, seems obvious that Weingartner has made progress toward maturity as a filmmaker - or simply has come up with a much better topic, since The Edukators was as distracted and inconsistent as 303 is harmonious and logical. The conventionality of the material and format may make this less memorable than it would have been if it resorted to more colorful details along the road, more violent or peculiar action. But that's not what Weingartner and cowriters Silke Eggert and Sergej Moya were looking for and would have marred the delicate surface of the youthful pair's shared journey toward self knowledge and affection, which, when it comes, is as natural and well-prepared and satisfying as any you'll see in a movie. I am not the only one to observe that the two-hour-and-twenty-five-minute run time goes by like a breeze.

303, 145 mins., debuted at the Berlinale in the Generation section; also Miami, Vallodolid; three award nominations. Theatrical release in Germany July 2018. Watched for this review as part of Berlin & Beyond in San Francisco.

Thu. March 14, 2019 8:00 p.m.
Goethe-Institut, San Francisco
West Coast Premiere




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