IFFR Review


Simona Kostava depicts Berlin Syndrome in a fascinating group protagonist tale

Savina Petkova on Simona Kostova’s ‘Thirty’ (2019)

Existential chronotype is the chief protagonist in Berlin-based Bulgarian director Simona Kostova’s debut feature film, Thirty / Dreissig. Observing the lives of six 30-something friends over the course of 24 hours, the film distils a “Berlin Syndrome” as an uneasy feeling of being vagrant, numb from the everlasting search for stimuli, drenched in hefty loneliness. A wonderfully sincere psychological exploration, Thirty caresses its protagonists’ pain and enables the spectator to recognise one’s own despair in unfamiliar faces, regardless of them having ever set foot in the Berlin neighbourhood of Neukolln.

While a beloved, life-affirming film once stated that life is like a box of chocolates — surprising and delightful — Thirty proposes an another metaphor: wrapped gift boxes slotting into each other, anticipating the surprise one by one, only to find out the last box is actually empty. This existential vacuum is, in fact, Övünc’s (Övünc Güvenisik)’s birthday present from the gang. His disappointment is countered by a cheerful explanation: “Man, life is about the journey, the journey is the reward.” The 30th birthday gift merges both the present, and the barren present tense that eats out the not-so-young protagonists.

In fact, the film concerns itself only with fragments of its protagonists’ stories, denying chronological representation. Kostova’s artistic approach strives for authenticity and intimacy, making use of a fictionalised narrative to tell a story of intangible sadness wooed by occasional ecstatic escapism. Since Övünc is (not) dealing with his writer’s block, the friendly advice of Henner (Henner Borchers) is to stop by the pub and have an early pint of beer for celebration purposes. Their friends Pascal (Pascal Houdus) and Raha (Raha Emami Khansari) have just split up and a beautifully framed sunlit apartment sequence encapsulates the despair of the transition from a shared life into a single one. Togetherness seems out of place for them as a couple, and the most sincere burst of emotion occurs when Pascal meets an old acquaintance on his way to work. Enthusiastically, he shares his plan of moving to Tokyo, his admiration for the streets he saw on Google Maps, and the idea of anonymity, hence freedom. In an emotionally dynamic monologue, Pascal seems both idealistic and aware of his own vulnerability — a recurring motif we will find in all of the protagonists — looking for freedom in all the wrong places.

The first part of the film also introduces headstrong Kara (Kara Schröder), suspicious to performative practices. In a touching sequence, she and Raha share a hair and make up session before the birthday party, punctured with honest confessions about what it means to be alive and questions on the purpose of existence. Recalling Bergman’s characteristic ponderings within a bedroom mise-en-scene, Thirty delves deep into emotional insecurities, peeling layer after layer of theatrical skin, opening up space for reflection on human agency within the confines of both reality and fiction.

When newcomer Anja (Anja Langer) joins the party, the camera’s presence shifts from observational/static/ to intimate, curious, and handheld. Following the group’s movements across bars and nightclubs, the dialogue collapses, making space for emotional investigation, the human face as a scientific object of study. Whereas urban films like Oslo, 31 August (2011) and Victoria (2015) trace a day in the life of a single (troubled) protagonist, Thirty relies on the Chekhovian concept of “group-protagonist”. Anselm Belser’s camera skilfully embraces all its characters, witnessing their breakdowns and their laughter alike. In a long nightclub sequence, a parade of faces lit up by neon lights serves as a eulogy to the Other, the unknowable person that we can, as religious and ethical lessons tell us, only love. Indeed, Kostova loves her protagonists. The film is flagrant with its strive for mutual understanding and acceptance, a visual caress which reassures that no man is an island.

The lack of conventional narrative, backed by the linear passing of time, constructs a canvas of empathy comprising of all our struggles, insecurities, and the inevitability of time passing. However heavy is life in a culturally rich yet demanding city (which applies to many cosmopolitan cities around the globe), behaviours and scenarios borrowed from fictional narratives provide escapism from our daily grind. While this approach might suggest a fiction that has the potential to idealise success and relationships in the “Big City Life”, there is a strong therapeutic power in such filmmaking and its reception. For Thirty, the role of cinema is that of salvation and Simona Kostova’s humanism is bursting at the seams. Rising afloat from the gutter of fragility, the film uses feeling-telling rather than storytelling to touch the mystery of being, the crux where reality and fiction do not exist as opposites.

Screened as part of International Film Festival Rotterdam

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.