Last of the Philly Film Fest films and a link to a formal review at the end.
I wrote about a Christian Petzold film a little while ago with his beautiful and unfortunately underrated Jerichow. Beats Being Dead, which makes me think of Better Off Dead every time I say the name, is the first part of a trilogy of films, each revolving around a similar incident, and each directed by a different person.
As with Petzold’s Jerichow this film is subtle, understated, and features an unshowy, frequently widely static camera. Petzold directs his actors as though they know more than they let on. There’s something bubbling under the surface of his leads Jacob Matschenz and Juna Mijovic, and though we unravel and reveal some of that angst and past, we are never treated to a full discovery.
Matschenz plays Johannes. He’s a loner, studying to become a doctor and eventually move from his small German village to Los Angeles. Johannes is also timid and taciturn. He comes across Ana (Mijovic) and the two start an odd relationship – odd in the suddenness with which it begins, and the little background either seems to require of the other. Unseen danger and subplots lurk: a murderer is on the loose from the hospital where Johannes works. Ana’s former biker boyfriend occasionally crops up. Johannes may still be infatuated with his boss’ daughter.
Much of Beats Being Dead is about what Johannes sees. The film begins with his view of security monitors in the hospital (a motif that returns later). Johannes meets Ana by watching her through a window at a gas station, and then later by surreptitiously witnessing her fight with her boyfriend. He hides when his boss’ daughter appears at work and watches her around a corner, and watches Ana from his room’s window. This isn’t your classic Vertigo/Mulvey male gaze though. Petzold’s camera doesn’t really sexualize or fetishize. Instead, it stays neutral in camera placement, though subjective in its voyeuristic nature. Rather than the investigatory status that the POV often endows, this feels more like looking at a landscape through one of those pay-binocular machines; everything is laid out in front, but the lack of movement is limiting.
More than nearly any other director I can think of, Petzold is a master at switching sympathies. In Beats Being Dead our sympathies begin firmly entrenched with Johannes. He’s a nerd. He gets punched in the face. He’s shy with Ana at first. He’s endearing. Ana on the other hand is unpredictable. She returns to her boyfriend and watches Johannes watching them. She runs away frequently. As in Jerichow, which twisted and rearranged the classic noir narrative, Beats Being Dead twists both the classic romance and thriller narratives. The protagonist shifts in the third act, and our guilt becomes as heavy as that of the former protagonist. It’s a very interesting strategy, and Petzold achieves it in two major ways:
The first is simple plotting. Johannes and Ana basically shift positions and desires. The second, is pacing and shot selection. As in Jerichow, which marked its shift by suddenly turning the camera to a tertiary character, Beats Being Dead marks its shift by suddenly changing the point-of-view. As Ana sits alone at a party that she insisted on attending we are granted a shot of her POV across a small pond to where she thinks Johannes walked. It’s not the first time we’ve seen her POV – indeed, we spend a small, earlier portion of the narrative with her and without Johannes – but it is the first time that such a shift occurs when both are in the same scene. The pacing of the moment, which lingers on a wide shot of Ana, also marks a difference from the earlier scenes, signaling alongside plot, that Petzold’s signature thwarting of expectations is about to occur.