Berlinale 2022 review: Echo (Mareike Wegener)

“Mareike Wegener’s debut feature Echo, opening with an explosion and closing with another one, is about the echoes of trauma, either personal or sociological.”

Saskia Harder returns to her homeland after an attack on a police training camp in Afghanistan kills her entire team and leaves her with some minor scars. Once she’s declared stable and reassigned for work, her first case is the discovery of some mummified human remains in Friedland, a town still carrying the heavy burden of World War II. She’s not the only one with scars here. And the post-trauma effects emerge in different ways for different people we meet along the way.

Harder’s own burden is materialized as pink / fuchsia clouds of smoke grenades which keep appearing during triggering moments in her daily life and investigation. When she arrives at the moor in provincial Friedland, the use of light and the scenes of smoke at night create an almost Bertrand Mandico-style abstraction. Wegener makes sure she’s inviting us into a mood piece. This is not The Hurt Locker. And even though we’re introduced to the mansion of an eccentric wealthy landowner with a lost daughter, similar to Henrik Vanger at first glance, this is not The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo either.

This is a world in which every character is trying to preserve something long lost. Be it the memory of a daughter, stuffed animals from the moor, or a huge metallic shelter in the forest. Sometimes it’s deeply personal tragedies. Sometimes it’s the shame and guilt of the genocide. The younger ones are either fed up with this cult of guilt or the exact opposite, owning and confronting it. It’s harder for older people like Harder and the landowner von Hüning. They have actual ghosts around. The man’s futile effort for the preservation of pain only creates an inescapable taxidermic limbo. And for her, it becomes a mythic exploration of herself, linked to the tale of Echo and Narcissus here.

The murder investigation becomes trivial, when the search for the victim’s torn hands leads to the discovery of an unexploded World War II bomb in the lake surrounding von Hüning’s mansion. The town needs to be evacuated. Security companies do not touch war-related damage. And the intel by the British and US militaries dating back to the post-war period provides only the visible damage inflicted on the land. Images won’t show you the damage that never actually happened, the things that remained hidden. This becomes the essential phrase to explain this film itself. The shame, the pain, the guilt, the scars are all hidden. Just like the bomb in the lake.

A countdown for a controlled detonation of the bomb, an expectation of ruin and resolution, and sometimes the denial of it, provides closure for some. In such a restrained and symbolic film, it’s hard to say each character’s closure is earned. Harder is a character especially difficult to crack. Her post-war trauma is something we need to fill in the gaps in any previous recollection we have on the subject. The film itself mostly prefers the way of the abstract or of mythological references. A family who lost their little girl 16 years ago and their reactions to the case and to each other may be the only truly human approach Wegener ever takes, and this is both Echo’s biggest virtue and shortcoming, depending on what you expect.