“Beyond words” review

The father and son reunite in Urszula Antoniak’s black and white immigration drama.

 

Michał (Jakub Gierszał) is a young, ambitious lawyer working in a law firm in Berlin’s Mitte. He lives in a flat that used to belong to his mother who passed away. A perfectionist and a professional, every day he learns German words from a recorder, practicing the pronunciation and trying to lose his Polish accent. Berlin is his home, no two ways about it, and he does not feel much connection with his homeland. In fact, he tries to suppress any signs of his origin, framing his German identity.
His boss Franz is also his best friend. They work together and have fun together, spending afternoons drinking fancy drinks in elegant Berlin bars. For Michał is seems to be a fulfillment of a life plan, he is wholly focused on his work, striving for professional excellence and the lifestyle related to it.

This ideal order is disturbed when Michał’s father Stanisław (Andrzej Chyra) appears after years and wants to make up for the lost time. The initial skepticism slowly gives way to a friendship, as they spend a weekend together and create an emotional bond. The father has built his life in a completely different way than Michał. He was a reckless musician, who did not stick to many rules but instead benefited from the joys of life. It is a clash of two different worlds, and there seems to be no place for such a variation in Michał’s well- organized routine. But the more he discovers his father, the more he starts identifying his roots.

The black and white photography gives the film a slightly vintage, classic look, which, together with the piano score, creates a poetic ambiance. The law firm where Michał works is situated in the city’s historical Museum Insel, and his flat is a spacious “Altbau” apartment with high ceilings and beautiful big windows. It has a somewhat austere design, which, we could say, corresponds to his vigorous life.

The dialogue is sparse, and as the title suggests, a lot happens between the words. We carefully observe Michał on the quest to determine his identity. The border between his Germaness and Polishness shifts throughout the film, as he favors the fist but cannot run from the second. Like his father points out, he becomes a different person when speaking Polish than he is in German. When Michał translates a discussion between Franz and Stanisław during dinner, he adjusts their responses to make it most appropriate for the other side.

Just as he is not ready to determine his true self, he is not able to decide whether he wants to bond with his father or keep him at bay.
His love life suffers from this hesitance as well. There is a seed of a romantic affair with a Polish waitress, but Michał never gives it a chance to advance, fearing this might expose him.


In the film’s first minutes we see him refusing to take a case of an African immigrant who wants to settle in Germany. For Michał, who considers himself a German, the newcomer has not earned it to be there- not speaking the language and keeping a strong bond with his native culture. He does not support the man’s argument that anyone should have a free choice of where he wants to live. But while the unexpected visit shuffles his sense of belonging, it also influences these views. Putting Michał in the middle of his two life stories, the director questions the power we have to determine our own identity.
Jakub Gierszał’s and Andrzej Chyra’s excellent performances are one of the good reasons why “Beyond words” is worth a trip to the cinema. Recognising the growing role of immigrants in today’s landscape, Antoniak made a film that explores an inherent challenge everyone who left his country is facing. It is not cinema that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats but rather a beautiful and thoughtful portrait of modern society.

 

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