The shy logistician of a German mail order company, Matthias Bleuel (Joachim Król), is send to Kemerovo in Siberia from his Russia - sentimental boss to accomplish a German work flow system in the Russian subsidiary company. He says yes simply because he is too weak to say no. Siberia, of all places! Equipped with down coat and pepper spray Bleuel expects to face danger, snow and ice. But in the mystic summer landscape he soon falls in love with traditional singer Sajana (Yuliya Men) and can't recognise himself any more. Stumbling at first, but more and more self confident he moves into a new world and puts everything on risk to win the love of Sajana - and to say goodbye to former Matthias Bleuel.
GERMAN FILM FESTIVAL: According to the popular stereotype, Germans tend to be intense and oh so serious. It might surprise many Australians to find that comedy is a booming sector of that nation’s contemporary film industry, thanks to a series of massive domestic hit rom-coms like Rabbit Without Ears and Men in the City and their sequels – films that borrowed their slickness from Hollywood while showing a special interest in flawed male protagonists.
if that makes the film sound contrived, that’s because it is
One of the biggest hits in recent years, though not a rom-com, was Ralf Huettner’s Vincent Wants to Sea, a road movie featuring a trio suffering variously from anorexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome.
Huettner’s follow-up, Lost in Siberia, is a sentimental fish-out-of-water comedy based on a novel by Michael Ebmeyer (Der Neuling) with a similarly offbeat tale at its core. Its little-man hero is Matthias Bleuel (Joachim Król), a middle-aged German businessman recovering from an ugly divorce who has a mid-life crisis during a business trip to Siberia where he falls for a Tuvan throat singer – and if that makes the film sound contrived, that’s because it is.
Much of the comedy arises from the clash of values between Matthias and the slap-dash Russian suppliers he has to deal with in the remote town of Kemerovo. In a jab at the German obsession with efficiency, he’s a kind of time and motion expert charged with managing work flow and improving efficiency in his company’s international mail-order clothing business. The Russian suppliers have no idea what he’s talking about and care even less. They’d much rather get on with drinking vodka and loudly horsing around (never let the film be accused of being scared of a stereotype), while a young woman named Natalya unsuccessfully tries to harass him into being her ticket out of this hole via an arranged marriage.
The balding and tubby Król, an actor with a lengthy series of TV and film credits behind him, does a good job of portraying an archetypal harried middle-aged man. The unfortunate part is there’s not much that’s funny about him, though probably it’s just as well because at the halfway point the film takes a left turn down a quirkily new-age spiritual path.
While Matthias is visiting an open-air market, he’s stopped in his tracks by a remarkable sound wafting through the air. This comes from a female throat singer giving an impromptu performance on a makeshift stage. (The sound is indeed unearthly, and I refer anyone who believes 'throat singing’ is the invention of the filmmakers to Genghis Blues, a Sundance-anointed 1991 documentary about a blind US blues musician travelling to Siberia’s Tuva region to perform with its traditional vocalists – singers who somehow constrict their throats to produce whistle-like overtones. A less obscure example of this startling sound can also be heard on the Massive Attack song, 'Karmacoma'.)
Following a brief introduction to the woman, Satyana, a member of the Shor ethnic minority looked down upon by his Russian colleagues, he soon after finds she has returned home and so sets off in search of her across the grasslands.
Huettner’s greatest skill on display here is his astute eye. Even when the story is dragging, the film is never less than strikingly well composed. At one point the camera pans from a hillside across the glorious Siberian landscape to suddenly reveal the scar caused by Kemerovo’s hideous concrete high-rises – an eloquent expression of the film’s major theme about the split between nature and civilisation, the traditional and the urban. But this is not quite enough to overcome the story’s contrivances and predictability, which even over a relatively brief running time of 100 minutes make Lost in Siberia feel overlong.
Disclosure: Lynden Barber writes a paid blog on the Festival of German Films for the Goethe-Institut.