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Eine Handvoll Wasser / A Handful of Water

Director: Jakob Zapf (Germany). Year of Release: 2021

Konrad, a widower, lives on his own. His daughter comes round occasionally, but he’s reluctant to visit her. He waters his lawn, chats as little as he has to with inquisitive neighbours, and relaxes in his cellar looking at his massive aquarium, in which fish swim around a large U-Boot. Konrad is played by Jürgen Prochnow btw, probably best known to an English audience as the captain in Das Boot.

Konrad is also a bit of a bigot. When he’s broken into, he immediately blames gypsies. His coldness with his daughter is largely caused by her having married another woman. Now that the daughter wants to adopt her partner’s foreign children, the tension between the two is rising. It’s not that Konrad’s prejudices are deep, but he doesn’t look ready to lose them soon.

One evening, Konrad can’t sleep. He descends to the cellar with some sort of hand-crafted nail gun. When he hears a noise, he shoots – and hits 11 year old Thurba, a Yemeni refugee who has just escaped a raid of her home by the Immigration Authorities. They captured Thurba’s mother and two brothers, and intend to deport them to Bulgaria – but as long as Thurba remains on the lam, they’re not allowed to.

Konrad and Thurba develop an unlikely relationship. She helps out with the aquarium and he feeds her. When one day she pisses herself, he runs her a bath and puts her clothes into the washer. When the clothes dryer shrinks her wool top, he drives her to the clothes shop, even though his really isn’t up to driving any more.

Thurba has a big request. Could Konrad drive her to the coast so she can get a boat to Britain? She has an uncle there, and if he takes her in, maybe the police and the immigration authorities will stop their regular visits and she won’t be deported to a war zone. Konrad is not so sure. There’s the “not being able to take to the road without having a serious accident” bit. And he hardly knows Thurba.

Eine Handvoll Wasser is a humane film which is on the side of the angels. The people trying to deport Thurba are never seen as anything less than scary, wanting to send a girl who has learned German to a random country like Bulgaria (why Bulgaria? Because that’s what the current EU movement laws say). The fact that it shows refugees as living, feeling, people is a challenge to those who would see refugees as being just a “problem” to be solved.

Yet I’m not entirely convinced by Konrad’s transformation. He changes, almost literally overnight, from a misanthropist bigot to someone who helps try and spring a family of so-called undesirables. And all it seems to need is a few hours in the presence of a cute girl. I wouldn’t say that this is a major flaw in the film, but its an area where maybe some more heavy lifting could have been done. Indeed, little of the storyline has much dramatic tension or ambiguity.

Similarly, there are a couple of plot developments which are a little too convenient. For no great reason, except that she is Troubled, Thurba decides to hack off most of her hair. Shortly down the road, this turns out to be very useful to the scheme to try and help her leave the country. This all just felt a little unnecessary – a coincidence that was just not necessary for the plot to work.

And yet these are both minor points, and you can have too much ambiguity in a film which asks whether helping refugees is a good thing. The humanity of the film, end excellent acting – especially by both Prochnow and Milena Pribak as Thurba, take us along without having to think too hard about any weaknesses.

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