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972 Breakdowns – auf dem Landweg nach New York

So, here’s the concept. 5 former Art students – 3 women, 2 men – decide to travel by motor bike from Halle, Germany to New York, going by road through 3 continents. We meet them in Georgia when they’ve already been travelling for 6 months. There’s another 2 years for them, going Eastwards through Russia and Mongolia till they reach the Bering Straits leading to Alaska.

As the intrepid five make their way, they find bridges that lead to nowhere, they have to create pontoons to take the bikes downstream and bridges to cross rivers. There are breathtaking landscapes and some interchanges with the locals. Two of the party speak reasonable Russian and all speak some English, so they’re not just tourists who ignore the natives.

The trailer for this has been running in Germany pretty much since cinemas reopened, first for the open air cinema, then indoors. I was always in two minds, partly because its a travelogue, a genre which usually involves us watching someone else having fun across the world, while we’re stuck inside a cinema. But also because its about motor bikes, and I’m not the world’s biggest fan.

But there did seem to be two redeeming features. For a start, the title gave the impression that this would just be about someone showing you their holiday snaps, telling you what a great time they had without you. Secondly, the gender balance made you think that maybe it wouldn’t just be a load of boring old blokes banging on about their boring old bikes.

Well, up to a point. There are an awful lot of shots of bikes being repaired, and of deciding which sort of chain fixes the latest bit of machinery that’s just dropped off the bike. Some of the fixes that they implement are quite inventive and beyond my understanding of engineering, but that’s part of the problem. Watching engineers at work doesn’t really do it for me.

As the film goes on, you notice how little we get to know any of the protagonists. There is little film of them actually talking to each other, and yet they must be meeting off-screen to go shopping together, or plan their route. Most of what we see is shot from moving bikes, which doesn’t really give us the chance to know who this is in front of us or why we should care for them.

We have even less knowledge of the people who at different times join the trek for a few weeks. They suddenly appear, we see a caption with their name, saying how long they accompanied the trip. And then, after a while, they’ve disappeared. There is no sense of who they are, why they are there, or how they met up.

Most social interaction we do see is after one or other the breakdowns. And maybe its just me, but there seemed to be a whiff of entitlement here. Here were these Westerners who had got themselves lost, and suddenly they expect someone to come out of the wilderness to rescue them. At one stage, the Russian military divert whatever it was that they were supposed to do to help them out.

Maybe this is a little unfair. At one stage their Mongolian visas run out, and they regroup in Canada where they raise money by doing serious manual work. So they’re not entirely lazy. And yet, for all the constant talk of money running out, you wonder how they can start to feed themselves and afford to repair their vehicles for 2 1/2 bloody years. Are they just slumming it on handouts from their parents?

Maybe they aren’t, but here’s the point. It’s because we never really get to know them that we don’t generate the empathy that would lead us to dismiss such ideas out of hand. Which means that for all their resourcefulness, this does end up as just another travelogue – the holiday stories of someone we don’t know and about whom we don’t care enough about.

I feel that for this film to work, you have to see some point in their journey. Why did they put themselves through all this? And I’m sure there is an audience that entirely relates. But for me it was just a meaningless task they set themselves which required unnecessary hard work when they could have been just enjoying themselves. And I don’t doubt that it was rewarding for them, but that’s something for them to share with their friends and family, not strangers like me.

It’s not a bad film, and some of it looks spectacular. I just never felt any need to be there.

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