366 UNDERGROUND: DENKRAUM (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Luca Paris

FEATURING: Manuel Melluso, Danilo Paris, Alba Barbullushi, Valerio Mariani, Ilaria Del Greco, Salvatore Di Natale, Giacomo Aversa

PLOT: Alex observes videos on a computer monitor for a new social network named “Denkraum” (which may also be a self-aware entity).

Still from Denraum (2020)

COMMENTS: I think it’s fair to call Denkraum a Surrealist film; although there might be a science fiction or even a mystical solution to its conundrums, any answers are buried under so many abstractions and layers of speculation and contradiction that the search for meaning becomes an exercise in the paranoiac-critical method. Fortunately, we have a director’s statement (appended to the end of this review) to provide some clues to interpretation. Even so, I think most viewers will be completely perplexed by the film’s ambiguities.

As a cinematic experience, the movie proceeds something like this: Alex (whose youthful baldness combined with a baby face make him look simultaneously thuggish and nerdy, a look that seems calculated to invoke Max in Pi) scrolls through videos on an app branded “DENKRAUM.” Every now and then, he clicks play and we “enter” a vignette and watch it play out. These may be real recorded events, memories, or dreams. Most are too dialogue-heavy to make much of an impression; in one of the better ones, four nymphs lead a man into a swimming pool and drown him while a woman in a red dress previously owned by a dead girl watches. Although they all seem to know each other and be part of the same social circle, it’s not easy to keep the characters straight or to construct any sort of narrative connecting them; this is probably intentional. When not watching videos, Alex texts with various characters or AI entities, stares at the portraits he’s hung on his walls, and walks the streets looking grim and intense, with a various color filters suggesting alienation. The screen is constantly invaded by text messages (originally scrambled, they decode before our eyes). Sometimes these come from characters in the videos, sometimes from “Denkraum” itself. They are rarely helpful (“There is a distant and hidden place where nobody listens to your screams and a drunken dancing snake.”). Are they real communications, or simply cybernetic manifestations of the voices inside Alex’s head?

Denkraum is packed full of themes, including a shadowy religious cult, schizophrenia, techno-alienation, postmodern philosophy, misogyny and sexual violence, stalker (but not quite Stalker) vibes, a possible murder or two, pseudo-fascist gangs, indistinct conspiracies, toxic homophobia, and apocalypticism. Even on multiple viewings, the choppy delivery of the ideas makes it almost impossible to form a firm interpretation of the film. Again, I suspect this is intentional: the deluge of information suggests a nightmare version of a Facebook feed, where a political rant is followed by a relationship update status followed by a kitty meme followed by a livestream of college girls making out, while various friends and acquaintances are simultaneously direct-messaging you, competing for your attention.

Personally, I would have preferred more variation in tone—the unending aura of obscure doom starts to wear on your nerves quickly—and for director Paris to narrow his focus to address fewer topics, and to bring his secondary characters into clearer focus. But there is no doubt the movie is a weird one with some effective moments, and it makes much of its low budget. If you always go for the tag, and you like your movies to include lots of reading material and philosophical references, then Denkraum may be for you.

One word of warning: the English subtitles—at least in the screener copy I watched—are full of typos. They are mostly minor, but a larger problem is that, in a very text-and-dialogue-heavy movie, there are a few instances they flee the screen before the average viewer will have time to read (much less digest) them. I can’t say whether this issue persists in the commercial video-on-demand version, but be wary.

DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT: Alex builds a social network that helps people confront fears and dream-nightmares, the DENKRAUM, but the consequences will be disturbing and grotesque. Denkraum tells the social network generation’s story in a dystopian fable about scanning interactions between people in monitors. The absence of privacy, the control of our sensitive data, the language in the age of instant messaging and smartphones, the witch hunt of haters, cyberbullying, public and consensual manifestations of hatred, consensual fake news, the isolation of young people of this generation, the phenomenon of hikikomori. The project of the protagonist Alex takes the name of Denkraum, space of reasoning in German, hence the title of the film. For Warburg, artistic creation understood as the founding act of the creation of civilization and as a tool for orienting man in the world is given by the relationship that man establishes with the outside world. This relationship is mediated by distance, by the space of reasoning, the Denkraum. The social network, the web, instant messages, prevent a concrete creative meditation. Alex’s invention is in contradiction with the typical use of these means of communication; it overturns the vision of reality in its schizophrenic/paranoid obsession, due to the substantial analogy that Gilles Deleuze proposed with the creative act. Alex’s social network represents a sort of mapping of the unconscious, the psyche and fears. It is the dark side of a social network, everything that is hidden by an interface that acts as a sweetening mask on the one hand and that leads to the violence of cyberbullying on the other side. The story thus becomes a Kafkaesque experience in the contemporary. Denkraum is a noir-tinged thriller, a cinematic divertissement that plays with genres and experiences a language of “programmed errors,” an open and free use of interactive investigative paths with the viewer. The protagonist Alex voluntarily lets the viewer understand that his work of dismembering bodies is an Artaudian operation that takes place through the choices of the gaze, the serial killer is here a metaphor for the artist who directs the games in a cruel way.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Everything always feels quite surreal and dreamlike due to the unpredictable nature of its loose narrative, combined with eerie ambience which features heavily throughout the running time, making for some unsettling viewing.”–Emily Davison, UK Film Review

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