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Die stillen Trabanten / Dark Satellites

Director: Thomas Stuber (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

Leipzig. A group of men (and the occasional woman) in orange day-glo jackets are clearing rubbish from the roadside. As they stop for a clean up at an abandoned petrol station, some of them start trying to talk to a couple of darker skinned people. The head of the group calls over to Hamed, who speaks to them in Arabic. The litter collectors are taken to a group of migrants at the side of the road. A woman is weeping next to a dead child, who has been eating poisonous crocuses.

The rest of the film has nothing directly to do with this opening sequences. Hamed reappears, and maybe there are some thematic repetitions (one critic rather portentously wrote that “maybe all figures carry with them the existential upheavals of life that we have seen in the prologue.” Well maybe, or maybe the director just thought that it would make for a neat opening).

Once the opening credits roll, we are in a roadside café run by Jens, a pleasant enough bloke, and Mario, who is a bit of a moaner. In comes Hamed, asking if they’ve got anything without pork. Given this is deepest Eastern Germany, not really, but luckily this week’s special is “Steak New York”, which fits the bill. As Jens grills the steak, Hamed reminds them that they know each other already. They’re neighbours, living on the same floor of a nearby tower block.

Nightwatchman Erik is carrying out his evening round. Passing a playground, he sees a young woman playing on the swing and wearing an army greatcoat. They chat in a mixture of her broken German and the little Russian that he learned at school. She says that her name is Marika, and that she’s from Ukraine. She lives in the refugee camp behind the wall. We later hear that all her family have been shot to death, The ungainly Erik is obviously smitten.

A woman walks up towards the station platform, carrying a bag of empty cans in her hand. Her name is Christa and she’s just knocking off from her cleaning shift. She goes for a drink in the station bar before getting the last train home. Another woman, Birgitt, sits on the next table. Birgitt drinks fizzy wine, while Christa drinks Schnapps. Birgitt talks about her work as a hairdresser – not in the nearby salon, that’s way too posh. Conversation flows easily.

It takes you a while to get acclimatized to what is going on. Just as they have little to do with the opening scene, these three stories have little to do with each other. At the same time, they have everything to do with each other. They are about lonely people searching for love, about asymmetric relationships, where you’re not sure whether both partners have the same amount invested. They could be about people taking one last grasp at happiness.

It is also a film where the protagonists’ search for love and happiness does not always follow the usual clichés. At different time, two different characters express their undeclared love through masturbation. None of the characters is stunningly good looking and they all have normal jobs. This is a Mills and Boon book which has been scripted by Ken Loach (actually, by Clemens Meyer, the East German novelist, who, like Loach, prefers to write about ordinary people).

Jens meets a woman in a headscarf smoking on the roof of his flats. She introduces herself of Aischa, and soon lets Jens know that she is married to Hamed. Nonetheless, Jens continues to flirt with her, and begs her to stay with him on the balcony. Aischa is loyal to her husband, but also seems intrigued by this decent person. Later, Hamed often returns to Jens’s café, and the men develop a friendship. Then one day, Aischa turns up at Jens’s door, worse for wear.

Erik continues to follow up on Marika when he’s doing his rounds. In one scene, which felt a little creepy to me, he sits next to her, as she’s in her bed. In an attempt to break through her homesickness, he takes her to an abandoned Soviet military barracks. Marika asks Erik to dance. At first he demurs in embarrassment. As they do start to dance, the screen fills with the soldiers and the band who used to frequent the place, many decades previously.

Christa returns to the station bar every day, asking if Birgitt has been there. She hasn’t. Then one day, Birgitt turns up out of the blue. They chat with the same intimacy as before, and start to stroke one another’s hair. Birgitt takes Christa to her salon, to give her a free hairdo. Then Christa takes Birgitt to the showers in the station toilets, where she cleans up after work. When the two part, they both look ecstatic, but it is also unclear whether Birgitt will ever return.

Die stillen Trabanten is a masterclass by acting royalty. Albrecht Schuch and Charly Hübner are among the most popular German actors at the moment, and many viewers of a certain age will have fond memories of Nastassja Kinski’s old films like Tess, Cat People, and Paris, Texas. At the same time, these are no Star Acts. Each actor delivers an understated performance as a working class character who has more relatable problems than those that we see in most films.

Even the glamourous Kinski looks very ordinary, and all the better for doing so. Finally, we have a film which is not about the young, rich and glamourous, but about people like Uz, who are crippled by self-doubt and inarticulacy. On top of this, it really is a relief to see a film with a scene set at prayers in a mosque which is not a prelude to a terrorist attack or an “honour killing”. Die stillen Trabanten is an ordinary film about ordinary people, and I mean this as the highest compliment.

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