The phrase “low-budget, improvisational German romantic comedy” doesn’t immediately strike one as making for an appealing-sounding movie. But the foreign-language film “Love Steaks,” directed by Jakob Lass, hits a strange yet thoughtful nerve as it tells the story of two young hotel staff members who fall in love on the job.
Protagonist Clemens (Franz Rogowski) is a newly hired masseuse at a luxury hotel spa on the Baltic Sea, where he meets Lara (Lana Cooper), a foul-mouthed firecracker who prepares cuts of meat in the kitchen. She’s out of control, and he’s painfully shy. Together, they attempt to diffuse and amplify each other’s personalities while internally struggling with their own issues.
The rawness of Lara and Clemens’ relationship is surprising — there’s no hiding or coyness. Instead, it is just action and reaction. He brings the tenderness, while she’s tough as nails. Despite their differences, they spend most of the movie pulling shenanigans in the hotel like kids who have been left home alone.
But underlying the surface of the quirky, boy-meets-girl storyline runs a bloody, disturbing vein. Clemens’ passivity is countered by Lara’s highly aggressive behavior — only once roles are flipped is it apparent how unsettling the film is. Comedy turns to stark drama, and the romance could easily be viewed as abusive codependence.
“Love Steaks” belongs to a genre of independent film called “mumblecore.” Characteristics of this low-budget style, which has recently taken off in Berlin cinema, include a lot of improvised dialogue and lack of a professional cast to emphasize realistic storylines and characters. Director Lass identifies this film in particular as the start of a new German filmmaking movement, FOGMA, which goes against mainstream convention and embraces a hierarchy of rules and experimental mindsets.
If it weren’t for this specific aesthetic, the film would be nothing special, but for some reason, the combination of awkwardness, stark editing and slap-dash randomness evokes a wonderfully wry humor and off-beat timing that makes “Love Steaks” noteworthy.
The 80-minute film was supported largely through crowdfunding. Shot primarily within a hotel, the film used actual hotel staff in supporting roles. In fact, even Rogowski and Cooper are not professional actors. Luckily, both were convincing as disheveled messes with stilted, curious chemistry. Their banter is so strange that it couldn’t ever have been initially put down on a script — and while German is no romance language, it’s easy to hear the genuineness in their voices. (The film comes with English subtitles).
The direction leans on spontaneous scenes of Clemens and Lara’s rambling antics, such as wearing Halloween masks to work or swimming in the pool after hours. But a handful of meticulously planned scenes and moments scattered throughout the narrative ground the film. Some shots, such as one of Lara shrink-wrapping what appears to be two raw hearts, seem to be of the few intentional moments on screen. One of the most memorable, brilliant scenes involves a car trunk full of pineapples and not a word of dialogue, and it still manages to convey a critical aspects of the film’s narrative.
And that’s the most memorable part of “”Love Steaks”” — there’s a duality between the improvisation and design, oddity and intensity. It’s hard to say, however, whether or not the film is enjoyable — or even if I would recommend it. For a viewer, the take-away emotions were so muddled that I figure the film’s only intention was to be provoking, instead of consistently funny or dramatic. Nevertheless, “Love Steaks” is a masterfully compiled combination of spontaneity and forethought.
“Love Steaks” was released last March in Germany, and was nominated for Best Film at the Lolas (the German Oscars.) It has also received a considerable amount of recognition as an award winner at the Slamdance independent film festival, and it has won in four categories at the New German Cinema Awards.
“Love Steaks” will play at SF IndieFest beginning on Feb. 8 at the Roxie in San Francisco.