Xhafer speaks German fluently, but with an Eastern European accent (we later learn that he’s Kosovan). After dealing with his 3 kids, he goes out to collect the post. Something has been tied to the postbox – the corpse of a rat. Xhafer changed his job a couple of years ago because of too much contact with the lab rats, for whom he has a great phobia.
Xhafer goes into work and waits for a meeting to start. After a while he asks once of the secretaries what’s happened. “Oh, it’s been moved”. When he confronts one of his workmates about it, they assure him that an e-mail had been sent out. Didn’t he receive it? Maybe it’s in his spam folder? It is definitely not in his spam folder.
Welcome to the day-to-day life of an “integrated” German-Kosovan-Albanian. Nobody can pronounce his name, and everyone thinks he’s Croatian. Not that the company doesn’t have anti-racist policies, oh no. At the end of a particularly embarrassing meeting, everyone gets up and applauds Xhafer for – well, what exactly? Not being born in Germany, I guess.
The daily indignities that Xhafer has to endure are real, but is there something more sinister going on? Is no-one free to meet him because of more explicit racism? And why do the rats keep on arriving at his house? He tries to take this up with work colleagues and his boss, but reaches no satisfactory conclusion. Even his German wife says “maybe it’s not racism and they just don’t like you cos they think you’re an arsehole”.
There’s lot’s here for Exil to have got its teeth into, and I’d have just loved to have loved it, but I just never got on board. Let me try to explain why.
Firstly, I think it badly mishandles a device which could have worked in more capable hands. Throughout the film, we are never sure how much Xhafer’s wife is right, and people are being mean to him because of his personality – he is not a sympathetic character. I guess this is meant to show clever ambiguity but to me it ended up trivialising the real racism that Xhafer was clearly experiencing.
Towards the end, there is a significant Plot Twist which gives an alternative explanation for everything that’s happened. Subconsciously, we are encouraged to think that it wasn’t racism after all, so everything’s all right. There are films in which such ambiguity can be used to heighten the artistic value. In this film, all that happens is that a very serious message is subverted – and not in any positive way.
Secondly, the film deliberately puts us into uncomfortable situations. Both Xhafer’s home and his work have a subdued yellow lighting scene which puts everything slightly out of focus. The resulting feeling of claustrophobia may well help us share Xhafer’s perspective as his life becomes increasingly uncomfortable. But feeling claustrophobic and uncomfortable is not necessarily how I want to spend my night out at the pictures.
Finally, I don’t know how to say it any other way, but it’s all very boring. There are long scenes of not much happening, of people walking from one dimly lit room to another. Any film which includes more than one discussion about e-mail lists runs this risk. Again, if the aim is to alienate, well mission accomplished. But I didn’t come here to be bored and alienated.
I’ve seen some comparisons of Exil with Synonyms (apparently they share a production company), which I totally get, as I hated Synonyms – but much more viscerally than Exil, with which I was merely fed up. There was no-one to root for, no-one with whom you could feel great empathy. Which could have made an interesting film if they didn’t try to shoehorn in the issue of racism.
Look, excoriate passive racism in German workplaces. There’s plenty of real life experiences that you can work with. Or depict modern alienation in a way that thoroughly pisses off a significant section of the audience. I’m fine with both of these as separate projects. Trying them in the same film adds inconsistencies that weaken both aspects of an interesting premise.