Berlinale review: Bright Nights (Thomas Arslan)

Strained parent-child relations are a staple in cinema. Every once in a while, there is a film that brings something extra to the genre, but sadly Thomas Arslan’s Bright Nights is not one of those films. The muted approach is not its detriment, but the failure to truly explore the rift between an introverted father and his equally closed-off son robs the film of any urgency, leaving us with nothing beyond nice vistas of northern Norway and a strong performance by Georg Friedrich (who is also in another competition entry, Wild Mouse). Unfortunately, this is not enough to sustain interest for the relatively short running time.

Civil engineer Michael (Friedrich) is informed of the death of his estranged father, who lived the final years of his life in the north of Norway. He flies out there to attend the funeral, accompanied by his teenage son Luis, whom he barely knows. After bringing his father to his last resting place, Michael suprises his son by suggesting a road trip through the remote north. Determined to avoid making the same mistakes as his father, Michael tries to reach out to the typically unresponsive Luis. It turns out that trying to create a bond without a history is more difficult than it sounds, as the two clash several times when things get too close for comfort.

The repeating pattern of a negligent father is an interesting psychological hook for the film, but unfortunately Arslan fails to do anything more than surface work. As well as Friedrich portrays the emotionally stunted Michael, neither his own history with his father, nor his truncated history with his son is given more than a few broad strokes, which is not enough to create a sense of why Michael would suddenly like to invest so much energy in the relationship, let alone why we should invest any energy in watching it unfold. His motives are clear: he does not want to repeat the mistakes of his father. But the film gives no indication that he is actually making any progress during their road trip: on the contrary, the chasm seems to be widening, and a last-minute incident cannot make that image take a full 180. It doesn’t help that the young actor portraying Luis, Tristan Göbel, is not up to the task, all the more when contrasted against Friedrich’s pent-up frustration and desperation.

Arslan’s long takes function only to suggest a profundity that simply is not there, the culmination of this a minutes-long foggy shot of a winding mountain road. There is probably a metaphor here, but by the time the shot shows up late in the film, the audience’s interest has waned enough to not bother pondering what it all means. While Bright Nights isn’t necessarily a bad film, at some point the austerity begins to irritate, and watching two people sharing most of their moments in silence becomes a chore. The windy, barren lands of Norway are a nice representation of the relationship between father and son, and they certainly look beautiful, but they cannot save a film that acts more profound than it is, and lacks a bit of drama when it really needs it.