Niemand ist bei den Kälbern / No One’s with the Calves

Director: Sabrina Sarabi (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

A farm in Mecklenberg, East Germany. The middle of nowhere. We watch a woman in the passenger seat of a tractor. We can only see the arm of the driver. The tractor stops and then isn’t able to restart. The driver tries to fix it. When he realises that he won’t have any success, he goes off to find a car. The woman stays in the tractor screaming at his disappearing figure that she just wants to go home.

Soon after, we see the same woman, still in a white top and cut-off jeans. It’s late and she’s hitch hiking. Someone stops. “Where do you want to go?” “Where are you going?” “Hamburg-” “Yeah, that’ll do”. Once they reach Hamburg, she asks him to drop her off at a petrol station where she stops to have a piss in the corner of the car park. The car belongs to a friend of hers, who can now drive her back to the farm. This is what people from Mecklenberg do for fun, apparently.

We haven’t reached the opening titles and 24-year old Christin is already seriously bored. She lives with her boyfriend Jan and Jan’s family in a tiny village of just a few houses. Her only friend, Caro, lives in the next village. But by the time we’re halfway through the film, Caro has moved to the big city, and Christin is left to listen to her answerphone message, impersonating Britney Spears explaining why her friend is unable to answer the phone at the moment.

There must have been something in the press release, as several reviews say that the purpose of the film is to disabuse us of our romantic visions of living in the countryside. Well, as someone who’s lived in cities all my life, I can’t think of anything more tedious of living somewhere where the most interesting sentient beings are the local cows. This film absolutely confirms all my prejudices.

No-one in Niemand ist bei den Kälbern says an awful lot. No-one talks to each other about anything, and there are a lot of ominous silences. Even the occasional acts of sex and violence are performed without anyone saying anything. In particular the male characters are virtually indistinguishable from each other. It’s often hard to see where one ends and the next one begins.

We also see a lot of drinking. Of lemonade, of beer and of a deadly-looking bottle of red stuff. This means that we see a decent amount of resultant puking, not least from Christin’s alcoholic father who turns up at a party and needs to be taken home. The result is the feeling of being in a party where you’re the designated driver. You can see that everyone else is stimulated (though it would be excessive to say that they’re enjoying themselves), but this doesn’t help change your miserable mood.

And this is the big problem that Niemand ist bei den Kälbern never successfully overcomes. We are encouraged to empathise with Christin because her life is so monotonous. But if a director decides to accurately depict a life which is suffocated by boredom, they shouldn’t be too suprized if the audience finds the film just a little bit (well a big bit), well, boring.

What slightly saves the film is a great performance by Saskia Rosendahl, who won the Best Actress prize at the Locarno festival for the role of Christin. I can’t exactly describe what she offers – she has an interesting face and piercing blue eyes – but there is something more about her that demands your sympathy, even when she’s not behaving particularly well. But you can only work with the material you’ve been given, and Rosendahl is not able to carry the film on her own.

When I saw the trailer, I thought that this was going to be something like Lamb (if there could be another film like Lamb). In retrospect, this was probably because they’re both filmed on farms and little else. Where Lamb is intriguing, and I’m sure infuriating for many people, Niemand ist bei den Kälbern is not really capable of arousing large emotions, unless you count boredom as an emotion. It’s all just a bit too much “Meh”.

At one point, Christin amuses herself by getting a box of matches, lighting them one at a time, then throwing them away. You feel a deep empathy for her, but for all the wrong reasons. Now if only she’d have moved onto the more exciting project of watching paint dry….

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