(Zeit Online) The Black Square Review
A review by Susanne Romanowski
German comedies have a hard time: They are often considered uncomfortable. Peter Meister tries now with a crime thriller and with Sandra Hüller between originality and imitation.
Just a black square on a light background - Kasimir Malevich's abstract painting was already irritating at its first exhibition in 1915 and continues to do so today. In tsarist Moscow it was a radical break with artistic conventions, and it was hung in the corner of the room that was reserved for Orthodox icons. In the meantime, the painting is considered to be formative for modernism, auction houses value Malevich's art with double-digit million amounts. So much money for a few black brushstrokes on white canvas - actually a joke.
It is precisely from this that Peter Meister made his first feature film and won several awards at the Hof International Film Festival. At the center of the crime comedy The Black Square is an art thief duo who are supposed to sell Malevich's work of the century on a cruise ship: the prevented artist and would-be master thief Vincent (Bernhard Schütz) and his sidekick Nils (Jacob Matschenz), who has the criminal energy of a puppy. It remains completely unclear how the two made it out of the museum with their loot.
In order to get on board undetected, Vincent and Nils steal the documents and suitcases from two regular passengers before dropping them off. However, it is precisely the things of two show talents that should entertain the cruise guests every evening. Now, instead of them, the two crooks have to squeal and languish across the stage as Bowie and Elvis impersonators. Applause for Nils, boos for Vincent, and of course the picture disappears. Also its copy, and then the copy of the copy. After all, anyone can paint a black square, if necessary with crushed coffee beans from the minibar.
Soon the real (or fake?) Malevich no longer hangs in the exposed corner of the icon, but lies under the bed or stuck between the wall and the heater, and half the ship chases after him: the thieves themselves, the cruise manager (Victoria Trauttmansdorff), the Pianist (Pheline Roggan) and an art educator ( Sandra Hüller ). The film plays with the tension between originality (Malevich's square) and imitation (all of his copies and the Elvis double). But how dearly this last imitation smiles! How beautiful he sings! With his classic quiff and bell-bottoms suit, Nils is the black and white object of choice on the ship. It's not art, but it's still fun.
As if his film were the breakfast buffet on a particularly large cruise ship, filmmaker Peter Meister offers his guests a wide range of entertainment: thoroughly choreographed fight scenes, slapstick, glee, tips against a crazy art market and, last but not least, rather dull feces humor when Vincent pees in the paint bucket while forging a square . Malevich's white wasn't exactly white, it was more yellowish. Not every joke ignites, but there is one for everyone. Perhaps this range should ultimately be a safeguard against the judgment that probably every German comedy fears: not funny.
Mark Twain reportedly said a German joke was serious business. Similar to the painting in the film - to make matters worse, the real Malevich himself painted several black squares - the authorship of the quote is unclear. No matter - Germans are not considered funny. If you try it, you will often find mumbled pubescent jokes. The black square does it better. It doesn't get really embarrassing or annoying. It's just a shame that at some point the fast crime comedy is supposed to become a romantic one and one asks oneself: who is throwing himself at whom here? The correct manager for the young entertainer or the film for its audience?
However, as one can understand the alleged Twain quote: Yes, a German joke is serious business. This can be seen, for example, in Toni Erdmann , Maren Ade's Oscar-nominated tragic comedy from 2016. In it, Sandra Hüller once showed her great, serious talent for comedy. As a management consultant Ines, she struggled with her father, who accompanied her on a business trip in Bucharest, where she was always joking. The movie is funny because Ines isn't at all.
Sandra Hüller plays this Ines stubbornly, correctly and in constant stress, so clichéd in German. The film was really a success because its topic is serious. There is a lot going on in the father-daughter relationship. Nothing obviously dramatic happens that would kit up the film, but rather the everyday alienation that hurts. Humor then acts as an outlet, not a magic bullet against conflict.
There are also situations in The Black Square in which this is exactly what happens. On the ship, only Vincent and Martha know anything about art - and yet it is they who steal the painting, copy it and sell it to profit-hungry oligarchs. As if that weren't bad enough, Vincent has to put on make-up as Bowie and Martha has to walk over corpses. At least for the main characters, their conflicts are not about life and death. They would have simply wished their life a little different. This knowledge is enough to add depth to Vincent's ridiculous performance and Martha's dilemma without taking away their ease.
This film is a bit like Malevich's square: if you look closely, you can see that the surface has fine cracks. Such a network can form if a picture is not painted on a blank canvas, but rather an older, not yet completely dry painting is painted over. The first black square was supposedly created by Malevich brushing over one of his representational paintings. Nobody knows what lies behind it. But just the idea that there is more makes the painting even more interesting.