Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2023 7:30 pm 
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A sociopath's world that's both cozy and scary

Axiom is about a liar so habitual and gifted watching him jars our sense of reality. More than that, as Jessica Kiang says in her admiring Berlinale review for Variety, "His borrowed stories. . .are merely an expression of a far more worrying buried sociopathy, controlling him through compulsion as much as he tries to control the world through lies." He is not a successful criminal like Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley but Julius's world is as Graham Greene said of Highsmith's "a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger." Or perhaps it a concern for Julius (Moritz von Treuenfels), and for some of them who come close to him, who are bound to get burned.

It would be a bad idea to summarize much of the action, because that would short-circuit the surprise and shock of the "fabulism," the lying, the invention, which sometimes grows out of other stories Julius has just heard, like a fish thief or a naked man on the street, and sometimes seem spun out of whole cloth, spurred by an embarrassing question because he doesn't want to reveal the truth. The film takes place all over just three days: we don't know what new edifices will be constructed or what existing ones will come crashing down after that.

Amusingly, the actor has an aristocratic name, and Julius pretends to be well-born on his mother's side. When we meet him, he is at work as a guard, in the modern art museum in cologne. He is friendly, he is obtrusive, he helps visitors, he bosses them around, and he eases in a new employee called Erik (Thomas Schubert) just arrived from Austria, and he invites Erik along on a sailing trip on the family boat with Jonas (Maximilian Hildebrandt) and Savo (Zejhun Demirov), who are most annoyed that this newcomer, plain and religious, should be brought along at the last minute. There isn't any boat, and Julius has postponed this trip before and will have to find a new way of short circuiting it. He finds two, the second a very dramatic one.

"When are you going to stop doing this?" asks his mother (Petra Welteroth) when she retrieves him from the hospital, "You're not five anymore." (The actor is very youthful, and seems unspoiled or untouched - by reality? - which helps.) Then, he reassures her by telling her he has a girlfriend now, an aspiring opera singer. By now already we know to doubt everything, so it's a surprise that Marie (Ricarda Seifried) does exist, and ironically as she rehearses we learn she has trouble conveying believable emotion - lying, in fact.

After what happens in the boathouse, we have that "sense of personal danger." And we feel danger for Julius because he is tilling not only Marie but her parents (Marita Breuer, Rolf Kanies), at a nice dinner to meet them that he is an important architect supervising a big project involving 14 others. He hopes they're all on an equal basis but "it's a bit more complicated than that."

Long takes, fixed camera positions, and simple but elegant photography bring out the best in the very able von Treuenfels and help us to identify with him even as we perceive him as a strange, volatile creature. How witty of Swedish director Jönsson, who lives in Germany and for whom this is the second feature, to plant the most far-fetched story in the mouth of the innocent, good-natured Erik, who, like the disappointed sailing party, makes a surprise reappearance despite Julius' abandonment of the boat side scene and the museum in days that follow. We see him spend affectionate moments with Marie in bed. They the dinner to meet her parents goes well. But a quiet glass of sine with her alone can't last. He feels the call of music and parties and new strangers, tabulae rasae on whom to paint his attractive, but treacherous pictures. A very original and arresting film.

Axiom, 112 mins., debuted in the Encounters section at the 2022 Berlinale Feb. 15, and has been shown at other international festivals including Edinburgh, Hong Kong, Bergen, Belfast and Thessaloniki. Screened for this review as part of Berlin & Beyond (Mar. 23-26, 2023, San Francisco. (Also well reviewed by Jay Weissberg for The Verdict.

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