This contemplative thriller kicks into gear at the point where many other movies start winding down.
Stereo springs from an idyllic slice of life, the same blissful beginnings many other movies have also employed as their starting point. Working as a mechanic in a country town, Erik (Jürgen Vogel, Sources of Life) is carving out a comfortable existence with his girlfriend, Julia (Petra Schmidt-Schaller, TV's Tatort), and her young daughter, Linda (newcomer Helena Schönfelder), with the bad first impression he makes on her policeman father (Rainer Bock, A Most Wanted Man) his only worry. Of course, decades of filmic formula dictates that his modestly content state cannot last. Erik begins to spy shadowy figures watching him from a distance, their arrival a precursor to the intrusion of a crime kingpin, Keitel (Georg Friedrich, My Blind Heart), with ties to his past.
In his second feature, writer/director Maximilian Erlenwein (Gravity) may set the story in motion by adhering to the thriller template; however the filmmaker is not afraid of deviating from that plan, either. In tandem with the arrival of his unwanted new friends, Erik meets Henry (Moritz Bleibtreu, The Cut), who seems to know exactly what he is thinking. His hoodie-wearing pal becomes both his constant shadow and the voice inside his head. Stereo is quick to make plain Erik's certainty that Henry isn't really there, as he enlists whatever help he can find to purge his presence.
Instead of simply plotting out the usual dream-life gone wrong scenario, and then coping with the dilemmas that inevitably eventuate, the film uses its protagonist's headspace as a playground, introducing early the kind of twist normally saved for third-act reveals. That's hardly the end to its narrative teasing, given that the movie kicks into gear at the point where many others start winding down; however it's a refreshing choice that positions Stereo as a feature about conflicted internal perceptions rather than compounding external forces, with the real drama always contained within Erik – even when guns are blazing and fists are flying around him.
Erlenwein's approach gives a thoughtful edge to a film that functions as a slick genre piece and as an unlikely buddy comedy, complete with the gleeful juxtapositions both bring. There's much to admire in the way the sophomore director sets the mood through an electro-heavy soundtrack, and establishes his theme of duality in roaming frames that alternate between wide expanses, intimate close-ups, bright exteriors and dark corners. There's also much to enjoy in the bantering back-and-forth between Erik and Henry – and the stellar double act of Vogel and Bleibtreu – including humour that toys with the ridiculousness of the situation, and even finds comic parallels in the imaginary friends of childhood.
Indeed, though moulded from recognisable parts, for much of its 98-minute running time Stereo is far from typical – until, that is, it once again proves happy to let everything wander down a familiar path. Starting the film with a blatant nod to convention sets the scene for subversion, then allows for a stylish combination of character and contemplation. Bookending it with rote thrills and routine action would threaten to undo that, if the great work evident in the movie's midsection wasn't so energetic, engaging and well thought out.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Director: Maximilian Erlenwein
Germany, 2014, 98 mins
Audi Festival of German Films
Sydney: 13 – 28 May
Melbourne: 14 – 28 May
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Byron Bay: 29 – 30 May
Hobart: 29 – 30 May