Berlinale 2019 Review: O Beautiful Night (Xaver Böhm)

How does one defeat Death?
With love.

Imagine for a glorious second that the ghost of Werner Schroeter decided to revisit and mix a nocturnal Boy Meets Girl with Only Lovers Left Alive, in the esoteric underworld of the Berlin night, and you would get a clear picture of Xaver Böhm’s romantic extravaganza O Beautiful Night that debuted last week in the Panorama sidebar section of the 69th Berlinale. The Komplizen team did it again! The Toni Erdmann, Western, A Fantastic Woman and Arabian Nights (no less!) producers have taken the Berlinale by storm this year with Nadav Lapid’s masterful Golden Bear Synonyms, the impeccable A Tale of Three Sisters, and this…Beautiful Night by the immensely talented young German director whose name has suddenly shot to the top of my new directors to watch list.

Böhm’s singular universe evokes an explosive hybridization of German cinéma pur of the 1920s and French cinéma du look of the mid ’80s. His flamboyant debut feature succeeds nonetheless, and almost miraculously, in inventing its very own codes beyond the plethora of references and tributes (Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas first and foremost, but also Miranda July, P.T. Anderson, Tourneur and the aforementioned Leos Carax and Jim Jarmusch, just to name a few).

Juri (the ridiculously handsome German newcomer Noah Saavedra) suffers from recurrent nightly panic attacks. One evening, his constant fear of dying will lead him to meet a dark figure (the Slovenian thespian Marko Mandić) who claims to be Death personified. Wandering through a neon-lit, old-school Berlin night, their path will cross Nina’s (Vanessa Loibl) in a Wenders-like peep show bar, and the two youngsters will fall in love. The film opens up with a stunning nightmare sequence during which a raven literally tears Juri apart, setting up the tone, the aesthetics and the noirish mood of the film to come. Alternating eerie segments (like the one with an enigmatic South Korean middle-aged woman, Sookhi, who can talk to ghosts), iconoclastic segments (the Russian roulette one with its sinister characters is alternately jubilant and frightful) and desperately romantic segments, the film transcends genre compartmentalization and keeps reinventing itself with every new scene. It is punctuated by eleven psychedelic tableaux of flowers and dead animals whose formal beauty is nothing if not arresting (it turns out that these interscene tableaux are remixes of 16th and 17th century still-life oil paintings that the director and his team have reworked and recombined by adding stronger hues).

This queerish, bizarre, love-triangle German Night is Young owes a great deal of its fascination and seductive power to the sensuous chemistry navigating among its three relatively unknown lead actors. Kudos here to Nina Haun for her remarkable casting work. The lush and sophisticated cinematography by Jieun Yi, with its old-school patina, elevates the film to an object of visual splendour.

And since talent knows no limits, Xaver Böhm also happened to compose and perform (along with Paul Eisenach) all the songs on the original soundtrack of the film. Some of them, like “In the Dark I Wait For You,” are instant electro-pop classics you could find yourself listening to in a loop…like this critic right now while trying to complete this review!

Death doesn’t go home empty-handed.

By the end of the night (and the film), the inaugural nightmarish raven will have given way to a bird of paradise. A ménage-à-trois kiss of death will have ensued.

But I’ll leave it to you to find out whether love defeated Death after all.