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Berlinale 2008: "Night Before Eyes" (Bertele, Germany)

A psychological drama about a German soldier suffering trauma after returning from Afghanistan.

So much of so-called criticism boils down to good or bad judgment calls. This is not to say that personal opinion, or even the endorsement or dismissal of films is uncritical, but rather a statement probably to the obvious: most films are neither great not terrible, and describing positive and negatives does no one any good except the tally-keeper.

This is a perhaps generic introduction, but it must be said for this first review from the 2008 Berlinale, on a day where nearly every film seen was not worthy of passionate evaluative criticism. But to dismiss films out of hand just because of an overall lack of quality or inspiration is often times doing a great disservice to one of cinema's greatest pleasures: the multitude of details, variables, and elements that end up on the screen of a feature length film. Not liking the film can have little to do with elements of greatness, or even just goodness, waiting to be explored.

***

Night Before Eyes

In this spirit, I shall say as a short evaluative introduction that there isn't a lot to recommend about Brigitte Bertele's Night Before Eyes, a psychological drama about a German soldier suffering trauma after returning from Afghanistan, so in lieue of a boring takedown, let's focus on the single positive aspect of the picture.

Amongst its many cliches and pat psychology is a particularly interesting idea: that this soldier, wound up on the inside due to repression of his murder and official cover-up of an Afgani child, would displace his desire to confess and expunge his guilt by effectively training another child in the cold-hearted ways he learned to cope with life in Afghanistan. The soldier's eight year old half-brother is the victim back home, and while the older brother used to coach the younger in soccer before going off to combat, the soldier is now teaching the boy lessons in conquering fear, gaining confidence, and standing up to his classmates. The only problem is that these lessons are of the violent kind, and psychologically disturbing; an encouragement for the youth to embrace a life of malice and a cold conscience.

Pointedly, these qualities are not actually character traits of the soldier, but rather a behavioral repercussion of his time in combat. In other words, he is molding the boy not to some soldierly or manly ideal, but into a shape that has the same morally questionable and psychologically unhinged dents that he is suffering from post-combat. This is an extremely intriguing and clever expression of the changes one sees in soldiers after combat, and inside this rote and embarrassingly generic drama there does exist this core idea. The film's inspiration is that a dangerous form of therapy and self-understanding can be uniquely practiced by molding another person in one's own distorted image. And who but a young, impressionable child could so easily be exploited in the enviable position of being tutored by his older brother?  The film taps into this relationship to see how a disturbed person can, amazingly, turn someone else into what he sees, and hates, inside himself.

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