Director: Vincent Maël Cardona (France, Germany). Year of Release: 2021
Provincial Brittany, 10th May 1981. It’s election night, and the pub is packed. When the tv announcer says that Francois Mitterand has been voted in as the first social democratic President since the 1950s, the whole pub erupts. Everyone is celebrating. Well, nearly everyone. Philippe (aka Philou), who is sulking in the corner, voted for the Gaullist Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. As least that’s what he says – he’s not really interested in politics at all, so may well not have voted at all.
Philou invests most of his passion in Radio Warsaw, the pirate radio station that he runs with some friends and his older brother Jérôme. Jérôme is everything that Philou is not – extrovert, confident, apparently happy. Naturally Jérôme is the DJ while Philou works behind the scenes, operating a primitive sampling system using sounds which he has copied with a tape recorder. At the end of the day, Philou takes a drunken Jérôme home and hides him from their disapproving father.
It’s the anniversary of the final Joy Division concert, shortly before singer Ian Curtis killed himself. Bob Marley’s death is imminent. There’s a feeling that something new is happening in music. Radio Warsaw plays a lot of post-punk – Jérôme uses English to emulate John Peel (he also refers to the four women of the Au Pairs, which will come as a surprize to the male members of the band. Is this meant to show that Jérôme is not as clued up as he likes to think or just a basic error?).
Philou is called for military service, which he tries to avoid by pretending to be mute. As he enters the psychologist’s office, he sees a woman in a doctor’s uniform who breaks down sobbing. As Philou offers help, an older, male, doctor, enters to tell him the game is up. It says a little about the slight excess of testosterone in the film that the female doctor is allowed to cry on demand but they need an authoritative man to tell Philou that he’s on his way to the army barracks in Berlin.
Jérôme has a girlfriend Marianne – a trainee hairdresser with a young daughter. Philou obviously has a thing for Marianne, but is too shy to approach her. Just before he goes to Berlin, Philou visits the salon where she works, but is unable to say anything. Fortunately for him, a love song appears on the radio at just the right music. Before he leaves town, Marianne gives him a mix tape that she has made of German music – “stuff like Nina Hagen”.
In Berlin, in the shadow of the wall, as they say, the Cold War is still very much On. Philou’s work seems to mainly consist of cleaning the barracks, which he does with headphones clapped to his ear. As he listens to Marianne’s mix-tape, the music suddenly cuts out and we hear her voice. She tells Philou that she misses him and offers him a kiss on the throat.
Philou wangles a job on British Services Radio, and finally finds a friend, Edouard. Edouard is even less political than Philou, and tells his new friend that politics is dead. It’s music that will really change the world. You can see how Edouard can afford beliefs like this when he mentions in passing that his parents are buying him a radio station and magazine and when Philou has finished military service, he should really join Edouard in Paris.
Die Magnetischen is never less than interesting, and is a fascinating portrait of a time when mix tapes and Sony Walkmen were still Things. But it does have one serious problem. Philou, who is expected to carry the film, is a bit of a charisma bypass (maybe its in the name – Philou is played by Thimotée Robart, who almost shares a forename with modern Hollywood’s most insipid actor). You do wonder why Marianne bothers spending time with either of the deadbeat brothers.
Philou’s lack of interest in politics is presumably because he’s not interested in anything but the beats. But even his interest in music is inarticulate. We see this in his first radio appearance, where he is unable to find the words to dedicate a song to Marianne (Teenage Kicks, what else?), so instead uses the studio mics and decks to address her sonically. Unfortunately, for most of the time, he is not in a studio, so returns to his default blandness.
All this is perfectly realistic – there are plenty of people who, through shyness or whatever else, are simply unable to express themselves in the way they wish. But it doesn’t make for gripping drama. At the very end of the film, Philou boards the train to Paris where he may well be able to invent himself as someone who is fun at parties. If he does, that would make for a much more interesting and engaging film.
This made Die Magnetischen a contradictory film for me. I was fully reeled in by the period atmosphere – an exciting time in music, the euphoria of France before Mitterand reneged on his promises, and a pre-Wende Berlin, with clubs where anything seemed about to happen. But, with the possible exception of Marianne, I couldn’t feel for any of the characters. It was like going on a great holiday with someone you don’t really care for.
Do go and see the film – it is worth seeing, even if you feel that it could have been much better.