Director: Dennis Wells (Germany, Canada). Year of Release: 2021
“People say that Winter can be very beautiful. I don’t know whether this is correct, as I’ve not yet seen it.”
This is the opening line of a documentary, narrated by two bees. This is a conceit that never fully wins me over for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as you can see by the tentative first statement, this is the most unreliable of narrators. We get to first experience things at the same time as the bee. Well, for some of the time. It’s not long before the narrator is telling us with scientific detail that she needs an outside of temperature of at least 10°C if she is to survive.
This may seem a little picky, but it does cause unnecessary distraction. When we are told about the process which follows the birth of new Queen Bees, it is all through a first person narrative. It is never really clear whether this is the story of this particular hive, something that happens to all bees, or is just something that’s been made up by the Disney-ish scriptwriter. Sometimes you miss the omniscient soothing tones of David Attenborough.
This is a pretty insolvable dilemma. Bees, as far as we know, do not have any self-consciousness. They don’t know what is happening to them and largely act on instinct or on learned behaviour. On top of this, the life of a bee is also pretty monotonous really. Most days they do pretty much the same thing. And yet for this film to work, it needs to excite us and – to some extent at least – to explain what it is that we are witnessing.
As said, it took a while to reassure me, and the film was over half way through before I was fully comfortable, but in among the cutesy anthropomorphism we do actually learn a lot. There are 2 types of bee – Winter Bees who live for six months and Summer Bees which only last a few weeks. As long as the weather is good, they spend most of their days collecting pollen. When it rains, they glumly hang around in the hive.
When one or more new queens are born, one of two things happen. Either the queens fight to the death until only one remains, or one queen takes a group of followers to find a new home which contains enough space for thousands of bees and is facing South-East for maximum heat and light. Again, these facts are stated to us (or rather, explained by the bee narrators as one of those things that just happens). I’d have loved to know a bit more about how the bees know what to do.
Nonetheless as the film progresses we see enough pretty pictures of countryside and hear sufficiently interesting stories to keep us gripped. Coming into the film, I was seriously unconvinced that there’d be a full film’s worth of sufficient relevant information. But although at 80 minutes it’s a relatively short film (and God knows, we need more of them), it never outstays its welcome.
Indeed, there are a number of great set piece scenes, not least when the new hive gets attacked by a hornet. Compared to bees, hornets are huge bastards, and it looks like this one will just swat away its bee adversaries like, well, insects really. But strong teamwork between a group of bees manages to see the hornet off after a superb fight sequence.
The bee society that we are presented with here is a strange mixture of royalism and proto-socialism. Early on, it’s made clear to us that nothing is more important than protecting the queen. As the film develops, the message is more of cooperation between the workers, as everyone’s future is dependent on the work of everyone else.
At the end of the film, the second bee, who has been christened “Bee” (no, this doesn’t really work in German either) says “I’ve lived for nearly 7 weeks now, it’s been a full life”. The film has shown us enough to show us that this is a viable position, but you can’t help think that there is one bee somewhere thinking “is this all there is?”
I have one final quibble (to add to my earlier quibbles). While we are shown some of the bees’ natural predators, we’re never seen the impact of their greatest danger – human action. Bee existence is seen as something that will carry on into the future, although if forests are devastated at the current rate, this may have a permanent impact. Nonetheless as this film seems at least in part aimed at children, maybe that’s not the required message.
There is room for improvement in Tagebuch einer Biene, as there is in most films, but I must say it way exceeded my expectations, even accounting for the unnecessary cuteness. And you can do much worse than that.