German Joys Mini-Review: Netto – Alles Wird Gut!

Anyone who spends more than a few days in Germany will meet an unemployed alcoholic. In Germany such people get meager state benefits which keep them afloat financially. This exposes them to an unexpectedly demoralizing fate: having much more time than they can ever use. They spend a lot of it hanging about in the dark recesses of pubs. They come alone, but soon gravitate to any table whose denizens don’t project the metal-plated wariness of the city dweller. When our watery-eyed friend plants himself at the table, the rest of the company will be in for some long, perhaps not particularly intelligible discussions about life, work, broken marriages, troubled relationships, petty government bureaucrats, and maybe art. (A surprising number of the ones I’ve met take up painting, and even bring their canvases along).

Netto_motiv2_gNetto – Alles wird gut! (roughly: "In the End, Everything’s Gonna be OK!") takes us into the life of Marcel Werner (Milan Peschel), a former East German who, like millions of his countrymen, never quite found a place in the unified Germany. Werner, who’s been unemployed for years, conducts long, one-sided conversations with the chef in his local Vietnamese restaurant, mostly concerning personal protection and security, the field he has utterly formless plans for conquering. Before his ship comes in, though, he supplements his government benefits by the modern German equivalent of rag-picking: taking in broken old computers and VCRs (yes, VCRs) for a pittance, fixing them, and re-selling them for a slightly higher pittance.

One day, his 15-year old son Sebastian (Sebastian Butz), whom Werner hasn’t seen in two years, comes knocking on the door of "TV Werner," Marcel’s dusty, chaotic ‘store.’ Turns out Marcel’s ex-wife has moved to the suburbs with her rich West German boyfriend, and wants to take Sebastian with her. Sebastian’s not too keen on moving to Squaresville, so he drops by to see how Dad’s doing in Prenzlauer Berg. Dad lives in one of those apocalyptic, graffiti-strewn, plastic-furniture, pit-bull terrier social deserts that pockmark Berlin. Like his neighborhood, Dad’s a wreck. He’s got no real friends, he drinks too much, his apartment is "germy" (as Sebastian puts it) and his job applications teem with outdated jargon and grammatical mistakes.

Nevertheless, Sebastian doesn’t turn and run. Marcel, for all his many flaws, can be pretty entertaining. The wholesome, gravelly-voiced optimism of American country music (as embodied in Peter Tschernig, the "Johnny Cash of East Germany") provides the spiritual soundtrack to Marcel’s life, and he generates a sort of halfway-convincing rhetoric about the world of work, responsibility, and success that convinces the naive that he really might just turn things around. Although nobody believes his claims to be constantly rushing from one appointment to another, he can occasionally summon enough charm and focus to make you believe in him. Marcel grudgingly accepts some career advice from his bright, introverted son (such as attributing a two-year stint of joblessness to an overseas posting with "Belgium Security International"). Despite misunderstandings and resentments, the two glue together a surprisingly strong relationship.

The director, Robert Thalheim, used a small crew and a semi-improvised script to keep everthing vivid and fresh. All of the performances are lived-in and affecting, and many of the scenes (such as Marcel and Sebastian clowning around in Sebastian’s apartment, pretending to be Secret Service agents, or Marcel hanging about in front of government buildings, pretending to be a bodyguard to departing ministers), are memorable. The sub-plot involving Sebastian and a neighborhood girl’s attempts to deflower him is charming.

A few of the scenes did verge a little too far into after-school special territory for my taste. However, Netto doesn’t airbrush its subjects, and eschews a happy end. In the end, Netto‘s an unpretentious, involving story about a sidetracked human being trying to pick up enough speed to rejoin the rushing freeway of life and love.

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