Risiken und Nebenwirkungen / Risks and Side Effects

Director: Michael Kriehsl (Austria). Year of Release: 2021

A family with all the right clothing and equipment walk up a path then climb a mountain. As they reach the summit, they make self-congratulatory photographs. Arnold is a successful architect, and even his beard looks smug. He is the sort of person who talks loudly on his mobile in a hospital waiting room, right next to the sign telling you to respect others’ privacy and not use your phone. Arnold’s wife Kathrin is a pilates instructor. With them are their daughter Eva and Eva’s partner.

One day, Kathrin returns home with shocking news. Her doctor has told her that her kidney is failing and she needs to find a donor. This means finding someone with the right blood type. Arnold, like Kathrin, is Blood Type A, but his immediate reaction is to say that he needs time to consider. Isn’t donating a kidney risky? After all, he is the boss of 20 people, maybe 30 soon. After a while of this prevaricating, Kathrin tells him she never asked for his kidney and doesn’t want it.

The reaction of Arnold’s best friend Götz is quite the reverse. Götz immediately offers Kathrin his kidney, only to be asked by his wife, Diana if he doesn’t want to talk to her about it first. There follows some elaborate but superficial Plot in which Götz withdraws then renews his offer, Kathrin rejects then accepts it, and Diana is forced to change her mind because she fears that Kathrin and Arnold will tell Götz about her affair with one of Arnold’s young co-workers.

This could be mildly diverting, if it did not all take place in such an exclusive world. Eva has moved out, but, like her parents, she lives in a Parasite-style designer house. There is some of Bong Joon-Ho’s satire of the rich here, but none of his savage anger. Rather than asking us to bring down Arnold, Kathrin and everything that they stand for, we are encouraged to gently laugh at their little foibles.

There is one particular scene which makes this a bad film (as opposed to just being a poor film). There is a running joke where Arnold stridently denies that the buildings he designs are phallic. This leads to a conversation in a café where he and Götz argue about a speeded up advertising video showing one of his buildings being erected (geddit?).

To prove his point, Götz goes to the women on the neighbouring table, as you do, shows them the film and asks what they think. This is when the women’s partners return and ask Götz what he is doing. Accusing him of showing pornographic films to “their” women, they start to beat Götz up. Arnold cowers in his seat, watching his friend being attacked while doing his utmost to not go near any of the flying fists.

A couple of things are worth noting here. Unlike virtually anyone else in the film, the young men are dark skinned and working class. They are given no words of dialogue – they are literally not allowed a voice, and instead just lurk menacingly in the background. You could argue that their presence shows up the middle class racism of Arnold and Götz and the scene is there to highlight Arnold’s cowardice, but this argument is both unconvincing and insincere.

We do not witness our middle class heroes assuming that young migrant men are aggressive and macho. We witness young migrant men being aggressively macho. There may be an intended hint that in his possessiveness and self-centredness, Arnold is just as bad as these dangerous thugs, but this comparison only works if you assume that young men with a migrant background are not as sophisticated as people like you and I. Such thinking is élitist, patronising, and, let’s say it, racist.

This arrogant thought process returns as the film bumbles towards its end. After a couple of decent plot twists, it becomes increasingly clear that the film’s real hero is Kathrin. One one level, this is just, liberal even. Kathrin must have the patience of Job to stay married to the boorish Arnold (indeed, a less conservative film would have her upping sticks early on in scene one).

But Kathrin is only virtuous to the extent that she is not Arnold. In other scenes, most particularly with her cleaning lady, she is just as controlling as her husband. She shrieks at the cleaner for putting plastic in the wrong rubbish bin, and for not having emptied out the dishwasher yet (because she’s busy mopping the floor). At one stage Kathrin tells the cleaner to leave as she can’t share the same room as her. She apologises later, but there is a clear power dynamic at work here.

Risiken und Nebenwirkungen is unable to escape its upper-middle class bubble, so it is unable to offer anything more subversive than light, indulgent satire. And yet these are not people who need to be lightly satirized – they should be chased out of their expensive homes by a pitchfork wielding mob, and strung from the extended door of their designer cars which cost more than most of us earn in a year.

In the screening that I was at, some people did laugh. I wasn’t sure whether they were laughing at or with the characters. But we should neither be laughing with nor at them. We should be screaming in their faces. This is a film that deserved visceral hatred, and at best it produced mild disapproval. Which is nowhere near good enough.

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