These days, we are all more than a little spoiled by technology. Kids growing up with the tech that we all take for granted will likely never experience the frustrating process of tinkering with a radio dial listening to annoying static to get our favorite radio station to come in clearly. The advent of presets and refined tuning buttons that automatically skip to the next clear station have all but eliminated the search for clear radio frequencies while traveling in cars, or manipulation of bunny ears on radios/TVs.
But I digress. What does any of this have to do with German director Maximilian Erlenwein’s newest film Stereo? Well, I’ll get to that, at least my paper-thin interpretation of it.
I’ll tell you that the film itself has absolutely nothing to do with people dealing with intermittent radio/TV reception. No, instead the film follows a formidable gent by the name of Erik (Jurgen Vogel) who is living a quiet life on the German countryside with his girlfriend, Julia (Petra Schmidt-Schaller) and her daughter, Linda (Helena Schoenfelder). Erik owns and operates a shop which he spends his time working on motorcycles and taking them for scenic rides from time to time. One day, a roving group of gypsies come by and set up camp near his shop. Alongside them is a statuesque hooded figure in the distance.
At first, Erik thinks nothing of the gypsies presence or the hooded figure. That is until the hooded man starts appearing closer and closer and following him around everywhere he goes and no one but Erik can see him. When the man refuses to leave, it forces Erik to seek answers as to why the man is there. The leader of the gypsies also pays a visit claiming Erik to be someone that he insists he isn’t. The search for the truth leads Erik to some deep and dark realizations and directly into the path of some really seedy underground baddies looking to inflict lots of pain.
German is an intimidating language for me because I can’t speak it and the cadence of those who can often makes me uncomfortable. What can I say, it’s a bit scary. So for an hour and a half, I sat in my seat as though it were made of ice cold concrete. Suffice to say, I could not sit comfortably the entire time. This can be attributed to the fact that I’ve already said how uncomfortable the language makes me, but also because the film is more than a little unsettling in and of itself. Erlenwein does not barrage the audience with nonstop action and violence for the duration however. Instead, he utilizes quiet restrained tension and characterization that crescendos to a brutal and unforgiving finale.
The script does not really attempt to hide what is happening with Erik for long. Once the mysterious hooded man finally invades Erik’s every moment, it’s mostly obvious what Erik is currently dealing with. However, there’s a mystery underneath the relationship between the two and why the despicable Keitel (Georg Friedrich) that provides the remaining amount of tension to the first 3/4 of the film. Once all the cards are on the table, there is tremendous weight to the well-being of those left in Erik’s life that have been put into the crosshairs thanks to the choices he’s made. Even during the bone-breaking violence of the finale, the emotional stakes are not lost. In some ways, it interplays greatly with how I was able to immerse myself into the events of the finale.
There is a light bit of humor injected to the tense and bleak tone with the presence of Erik’s hooded guest, Henry (Moritz Bleibtreu). At first, Henry seems to just be there to mock Erik as sort of an unwanted imaginary friend. His humor is appreciated to break up the increasing tension, even if some of his comments come off as grossly misogynistic. Eventually, the characterization of the two becomes clear and while some of the comments still seem a bit heavy handed, it all lends to canvas of the character Erlenwein intended to paint.
Without giving too much away, I’ll now briefly explain how I feel my opening radio talk fits in with Stereo. I mentioned how those of us old enough to remember car stereos tended to not have the advanced radio seeking upgrades they have now and we used to have to turn the tuning dial to find a channel that came in clearly. Sometimes, even when you could hear (or see if you like the TV analogy better) what was on the channel, it would still be through a screen of static. Essentially, once he is confronted that he may be on the wrong channel, Erik is a man searching through that wall of static for everything to come in clearly once again. And there you have it, my paper-thin interpretation of Stereo.
Erlenwein’s film is that which has all the bells and whistles of a noir thriller and indeed rewards audiences with the patience to stick through till the end. In fact, it might stick to its slow burning guns a little too long that the last act becomes a little bit convoluted. Regardless of small missteps here and there Stereo is a tense, well-acted thriller with a ending that kicks you right in the stones and stares menacingly as you squirm on the ground.
Side note: I could easily see an American remake of this being greenlit with Michael Rooker or Jason Statham playing the lead role. Jurgen Vogel kind of looks like a hybrid of those two actors.