Berlinale 2021 review: Bliss (Henrika Kull)

The actress Katharina Behrens was escorting her son to an audition for a film role as the son of Sascha, a Berlin sex worker. The filmmaker Henrika Kull had been casting for her first feature Bliss (Glück), and had tested a number of talented actresses but hadn’t found someone that had the look she wanted for the film’s lead, the aforementioned Sascha. Spotting Behrens at her son’s audition, she was struck by a moment of revelation – Behrens had the look, the feel, and the sufficiently storied mien to lead her film. She had found her Sascha. It is hard to know how Katharina Behrens felt about this unexpected casting, but she took the role, a brave one at that, and put everything she had into the portrayal.

Bliss is, despite (or rather purposely because of) its setting, an unhurried and finespun film about two sex workers, Sascha and Maria, falling into each other’s wake in the Berlin brothel where they work. Kull didn’t come to the idea of a film set in a brothel easily; through an earlier short film set on location in a brothel she had become beguiled by the lives of women sex workers and their place of work. She was surprised to discover that these places, at least in their communal spaces where the clients can’t access, were in fact oases of female collective protection, care, humour and kindness. She resolved to make a film that honoured that spirit, and thought it an especially good setting to film a romance.

The film is slight on narrative detail but Sascha, ostensibly our lead, meets Italian new girl Maria, and through a series of glances, beatific smiles and finally a meet-cute involving a notebook that Maria leaves in the brothel one day (which Sascha uses as an opportunity to make contact outside of work), they come together as a couple. But a relationship between two working women who use their bodies for the pleasure of men is not easily sustained without emotional fallout.

The characters of Sascha and Maria are well chosen in their differing aspects; both are successful at their work but their approach is subtly different. Sascha is older, she offers herself up to her clients – she is lending them something of her spirit and it is returned each time a little more worn. Maria, representing something Kull saw in the younger generation of sex workers she encountered in her research, has an almost spectral nonchalance to the use of her body, seeing it as a tattooed tool to generate income (on her upper arm is tattooed in childlike penmanship the phrase ‘Working Lass’). Both characters seem deeply authentic and this is the film’s great strength, and likely the result of exhaustive filmmaking by Kull. All of it is authentic: the setting, the women, the nudity, the lines in Sascha’s face, her solemn eyes, Maria’s tattoos, her gamine beautiful unbeauty.

Things begin to fall apart when Sascha takes Maria to meet her son, in the presence of his father and old friends at a rural beer festival. It is hard enough to carve out an emotional space for another person in your life, let alone another woman when you come from unprogressive rural stock, and even more so when you are both sex workers. Here I think the film may or may not take a misstep: a male character is portrayed in a short scene as possessive, unpleasant, frankly rapey. It gives some context (the film is scant on context so it is welcome), but is against the flow of the film to that point. A misstep not because this possessive, hateful element isn’t true of men (of course it is), but a misstep because up to that time Bliss had presented something quite remarkable on film in its portrayal of men as clients. Here in the brothel these men (fathers, husbands, workers, captains of industry) are just a sea of doe-eyed emotional invalids defined by their unimpressive cocks and their wallets. This is the milieu of the sex worker, men blend into one. And perhaps cleverly, whilst there is nudity in the film, it is unerotic, mechanical almost; our collective male gaze isn’t so much impotent as rendered part of the scenery; body parts are no more of note than coffee mugs and lampshades. There is something to learn here about the flourishing of the female collective, surviving leechlike off the dull monied blood of what passes for a patriarchy. In contrast, the love we see between Sascha and Maria is tentative, caressing, centered on kissing. This is nimbly portrayed, is sensitive and is mostly successful – the film asks good questions about the value of physical love when physical unlove is your profession, and it provides some fleeting answers.

For all the good of having put us in the brothel, the film frustratingly doesn’t know what to do with us, or its collective of women, or even really its protagonists. It feels like the film’s artistry was finite and maybe somewhat exhausted once the setting and the look of the characters were created. By the end we haven’t learnt much at all and the motivations of our protagonists, and everyone around them, remain opaque. The acting is fine (especially Behrens, who gives a deeply embodied performance) but there are so few things to say. The film endlessly hints at inner lives rather than ever letting the characters speak their truths. There’s barely a script, they are drawn together more by inevitability than agency. The film’s one piece of exposition, a poem written and read by Maria, is strong (“If they tell you to die enough times, you either end up dying or start living out of spite… I’m a woman in that I’m made of spite“). But it’s not enough, and almost as an admission of narrative redundancy the film replays the poem again as voiceover towards the end, as though we’ve now learnt its context (we haven’t). Rather maddeningly, in the end the collective of women in the brothel (who in real life so entranced Kull she felt compelled to put their likeness in a feature film) are drawn with such a loose disregard for their inner lives they all feel painted in watercolor; what details there are blend one into the other – they are authentically exteriorised but practically mute.

Bliss has a realism that everyone involved can be proud of. But having built an extraordinary frame, in the end it doesn’t offer enough of a painting to hold the attention. This is a terrible shame. Behrens deserves an audience for her performance and with a little more meat on the bones of the script and a little more purposefulness in the motivations of its characters this film could have been extraordinary. One might argue this is an impressionistic piece, a sort of still life where the inner lives are to be guessed at, and there is value to that, but this film is also a peek behind the curtain and in committing to that peek the audience won’t come away knowing very much more.