The German film Bastard is a socially contemporary and topical thriller that’s uncomfortably compelling. Uncomfortable, because to an American audience that’s used to vapid teenage vampire melodramas featuring cute boys with washboard stomachs and their girlfriends with even more dubious acting skills, Bastard is a boot-kick to the teeth.
©2011 Gifted Films (German with English subtitles)
The story is about a disturbingly sullen 13-year old, Leon (Markus Krojer), who kidnaps a nine-year old boy, chains him inside the basement of a public swimming pool, films his captive, and posts the footage on the internet. The video goes viral as the police, led by a criminal psychologist (Martina Gedeck), try to find the missing nine-year old and his kidnapper. Both the psychologist and the missing boy’s parents realize very quickly that Leon is the culprit. He makes no secret of it. In fact, he is tauntingly brazen about his guilt. He is equally cavalier in his manipulation of the German system which states that one must be 14 years old to be responsible legally for any crime.
At first, Bastard is an open and shut case. However, here’s where the story veers into the uncomfortable. Leon’s parents seem alarmingly unaffected, alienated – and accepting – of their out of control son. The missing boy’s mother seems terrified by Leon to such an inexplicable extent that it even exceeds what one would expect as the natural reaction of a mother towards her son’s kidnapper. The missing boy’s father seems like a caged animal rendered powerless by Leon and the German legal system.
…and then Bastard veers wildly into the stratosphere of uncomfortable…
Enter Mathilda (Antonia Lingemann), Leon’s classmate. Mathilda is the daughter of an alcoholic single mother, and whose father died when she was young. At home, Mathilda is forced to be the responsible parent to her drunk mother. Away from home, she is at once a Lolita – who exudes jailbait sexuality of monstrous proportions towards Leon and any adult male – and a little girl lost. Mathilda barges her way into the lives of Leon, the missing boy’s parents, and the psychologist, and becomes an instrumental complication and diversion to their standoff.
Fifteen-year old Lingemann steals this film. She delivers a spectacularly nuanced star turn with an ease that one would only expect from the best of actors two or three times her age. Lingemann’s performance provokes viewers to simultaneously love, hate, fear, feel sorry for, laugh at, be shocked by, and squirm in supreme discomfort at Mathilda. The fact that a supporting character can have such a profound impact on the movie speaks to Lingemann’s prodigious acting chops, as well as to first-time director/screenplay writer Carsten Unger’s skills.
Without ever seeming overbearing, Unger deftly provides subtle social commentary about juvenile and adoption laws in Germany, the over-sexualization of children, abuse, bullying, and the desensitization of an entire generation as a result of technology. As writer and director, Unger has cleverly taken influences from Roman Polanski, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and A Clockwork Orange to deliver a brash film that is truly his own.