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BERLINALE 2021 Panorama

Review: Bliss

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- BERLINALE 2021: German filmmaker Henrika Kull's second feature deals with identity, self-determination and female empowerment in the story of a romance between two women in a Berlin brothel

Review: Bliss
Katharina Behrens and Adam Hoya in Bliss

German director Henrika Kull broke out when her marvellous debut feature, Jibril [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Henrika Kull
film profile
]
, world-premiered in the Berlinale's Panorama in 2018. Now, she is back in the same section with Bliss [+see also:
interview: Henrika Kull
film profile
]
, a story about an unlikely meeting and romance between two sex workers, which results in an admirably authentic drama dealing with identity, self-determination, ownership of one's own soul and body, and the search for happiness.

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Sascha (Katharina Behrens in her first lead role) is a 42-year-old prostitute living in Berlin. The brothel she works at is decidedly unglamorous, but is as clean and as decent as a brothel can be. The madam is more of an administrator, and the women working there seem to be free to choose and say "No" – actually, the feeling is that they are more empowered than their clients.

One day, a new girl arrives, 25-year-old Italian Maria (Adam Hoya, a real-life performance artist and sex worker, subject of the 2019 Panorama documentary Searching Eva [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Pia Hellenthal, Eva Collé
film profile
]
). We see straight away that this is an independent, self-assured woman for whom sex work is a form of performance, and a chance to make some extra money. She certainly does not seem to be lacking it, and appears to be regularly sending voice messages to her father, describing imaginary trips and experiences.

The two become attracted to each other pretty quickly. Sascha certainly falls for Maria's charm, laughter and relaxed air, while the younger girl sees a strong, confident woman in Sascha, who is respected and popular at the brothel, both with clients and with other prostitutes. Soon, the pair experiences the bliss of falling in love, but true to its nature, bliss cannot last long.

Sascha has a ten-year-old son living in Brandenburg with his father and his father's new partner, as well as a boyfriend who is more of a passing presence in the film that reminds the viewer of the patriarchal world that surrounds our heroes. It is in such a situation that Sascha and Maria's connection starts cracking – at a fair in their small town, where she brings Maria to spend the day with her and Max.

Sascha's painfully constructed armour of confidence and self-reliance turns out to be too fragile to sustain the situation. Society's rules and expectations, and particularly the stigma that homosexuality and sex work carry, loom so large as to dwarf the little spark of human connection that she has managed to create. She starts unravelling on every level and leaves Maria – who, as we will later learn, has traumas of her own that drove her away from home. Perhaps she does not have such a strong personality after all, nor might she be such a champion of queerness or women's empowerment through a purposeful use of her own body.

Kull shot the film in a real-life brothel, with real-life prostitutes, which lends it an admirable authenticity. The place is indeed perceived almost as a safe house compared to the world outside, somewhere where women can be what they choose to be. The issue of empowerment is, of course, terribly complex, and each segment of the feature and each action undertaken by the protagonists can be interpreted on multiple levels. But Kull certainly does her best to present it in an honest and straightforward way, with fully fledged characters that can focus on themselves and their relationship – the male-dominated world it is set in is well known to audiences.

A couple of impressionistic segments, in which Carolina Steinbrecher's cinematography transforms from its steady, clear depiction of reality into a nightmarish blur of colours, and where Dascha Dauenhauer's electronic atmospheric music swells to immerse the viewer, plunge us right into the middle of Sascha's feelings, fears and idea of self-worth. Behrens plays a bold role, one of those rare performances where a viewer feels that she put not only all of her body, but also a big chunk of her soul, on the screen.

All in all, Bliss is an accomplished drama that is, similarly to its heroes, not always perfectly balanced, but is certainly thought-provoking throughout.

Bliss was produced by Germany’s Flare Film Production, in co-production with ZDF, and Reel Suspects has the international rights.

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