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Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt / All Russians Love Birch Trees

Director: Pola Beck (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

Moning. A half-naked woman is waking up. As the camera pans up, we see the equally half-naked body of a man behind her. Then a different man, who she kisses while the radio alarm blares out. Then a woman. It’s not yet entirely clear what is going on, but the film is already fucking with us.

Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt takes place at two different times, 6 months apart, and two different places – Cologne and Tel Aviv. It switches between the different times and places at will. Central to all scenes is Mascha, the 29-year old daughter of Russian-Azerbaijani Jews, who doesn’t like to talk about her family’s history of fleeing from pogroms and civil war. Mascha mixes in a multiethnic, pansexual community, and is happy to sleep with people of all sexes and races.

Mascha is a professional translator who speaks 5 languages fluently, and knows a smattering of several more. She is picking up Arabic from a current boyfriend (or a past – and, sort of, future boyfriend, depending which time zone the film is currently inhabiting). She is headed for a job for the UN, which she’ll somehow fit in with playing the upright piano in her front room.

Yet Mascha’s life is, as is expected in this sort of film, utterly chaotic. She is permanently late, and her boyfriend Elias – a footballer – is not sure whether he really knows her. The film portrays her as an uncompromising woman who wants her own way, without it being really clear to us – or to her – what it is that she actually wants from life. She also has an obligatory gay friend with whom she regularly fights and reconciles. I’m not convinced that any of this is particularly original.

When Elias picks up an apparently harmless injury, then develops a fatal sepsis, everything falls apart. Or does it, really? As only a woman of her means can, Mascha moves to Israel, taking nothing with her but her passport (and presumably, a bank card which allows her to continue living in the way to which she’s been accustomed). In Tel Aviv she spends a lot of time on the beach and in night clubs, where she repeatedly flirts with the nearest dancer.

I do not mean this at all moralistically – following such a tragic experience, no-one could begrudge Mascha a bit of enjoyment – fun, even. And yet, for me at least, these scenes did not fit well with the depiction of a tragic figure laden down with gloom. Yes, I know, Mascha is smiling on the outside while carrying a heavy burden, but she’s laughing a bit too much for us to feel sufficiently sorry for her.

There is also something rather childish about Mascha’s behaviour. When Elias asks her who she really is, she gives a gnomic answer – something like “I don’t know and I don’t want to know, as then I’d start running away from who I am”. I may have misremembered, but it’s one of a number of interchangeable meaningless phrases that sound profound if you’re 14, but less so if you’re a grown up adult.

It’s not just the conversations with Elias that feel like familiar vacuousness posing as profundity. In Israel, Mascha hooks up with Tal, a former soldier. Tal tells Mascha that she acts like she’s fleeing something, which I guess she is, metaphorically. But none of this actually means anything. In general, the film feels like it is trying to make meaningful statements, while lacks the depth to convincingly pull it off.

I’m not sure how much this is a question of format. The film is based on a best selling book, which I haven’t read, so I can’t say whether the characters come alive in the book, having been given time to breathe. In the film, which lacks a significant amount of memorable dialogue, they are given as much time as they want, but just go on and on. The running time is significantly under 2 hours, but it feels much longer. Maybe it’s a story which is better read than watched.

For me at least, when push comes to shove Mascha is not an interesting enough character for us care too much about. She’s been ascribed an interesting history, sure, but the character who we see on screen feels a little too dull, too unlovable. I’m sure that much of this is subjective, but for this sort of film to work, you have to be bothered about what happens to the main characters. And I just wasn’t.

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