Fugee Fugue: Perceptions and Paranoia Make Bitter Bedfellows in Morina’s Drama
For anyone who’s ever experienced the phenomenon of ‘otherness,’ Visar Morina’s terrific sophomore film Exil plants its fair share of universally familiar triggers. In a contemporary world where blatant harassment, prejudice and various isms are punishable by policy and or law, we’ve come to the murky battlefield of microaggressions and the hostility and hysteria potentially born out of them. Morina once again tackles a stranger in a strange land angle through the lens of a Kosovar in modern Germany (his 2015 debut Babai also charts a similar dichotomy), a country with a fantastically dark history now poised as one of the most progressive minded nations in the world. But what lurks beyond the surface of a national veneer becomes the dramatic catalyst for a character study drenched in paranoia, where madness follows in open spaces. Morina crafts a dark drama which pivots as a workplace thriller and succeeds in jangling the nerves.
Returning home from work, Xhafer (Mišel Matičević) discovers a dead rat tied to his gate. Immediately, he assumes it was one of his co-workers, as he is one of the few non-Germans working at his company as a chemical engineer. Signs at work would seem to suggest Xhafer is correct in his assumption, wherein he suddenly finds himself left off important staff emails and Urs (Rainer Bock), a cohort who seems to be willfully withholding data Xhafer needs to complete an important assignment, continues to brush him off. More troubling is how their boss seemingly never has time to meet with Xhafer. So the rat incident continues to eat at him, but it’s followed by a baby carriage lit on fire and left in front of his house. His German wife (Sandra Huller) thinks these are random acts, suggesting his co-workers, if they’re involved, might not be racist—in fact, they might just not like him. As we get to know Xhafer on his crusade, it turns out there’s a lot not to like about him either, but he is obsessed and consumed with the notion he is being persecuted for his ethnicity.
Dead rats are an obvious motif throughout Exil, their corpses haunting him from the film’s opening moments to a proliferation of them which eventually (and rather mysteriously) instigates a workplace tragedy. Considering Xhafer’s outsider status and the perceived association with these dead rodents, the title of George P. Cosmatos’ B-thriller Of Unknown Origin (1983) comes to mind and the minefield of disgust and fear of both these scavenging animals paired with a trenchant xenophobia alive and well in Germany as well as everywhere else. However, Morina’s narrative leads us to question Xhafer’s interpretation of these happenings—surely, these aren’t coincidences, but are they transpiring for the reason he believes? “Have you wondered if it’s because you’re an asshole?” screams Huller as his overwhelmed wife, left to care for their three children and pursues a PhD while her husband unravels. But this is exactly a facet of otherness which is most upsetting, a gut reaction defense mechanism whereby unexplained happenings are harbingers and threats. Xhafer being excluded from the office e-mail list suddenly feels like evidence of prejudice as it immediately follows the appearance of a hanged rat. His difficult colleague, played by a nebbish and unlikeable Rainer Bock, definitely seems resistant to working with Xhafer. But is there another explanation?
While we’ve been simultaneously trained to distrust and yet emphasize with the perspective of our protagonist in linear cinema, Morina tests our comprehension through the characterization of Xhafer, portrayed with sweaty, convincing anxiety by Mišel Matičević, a man we come to suspect may indeed be the instigator of his own demise. As his wife, Huller has less room to show off as the frustrated target of Xhafer’s increasing dissatisfaction. What Morina really nails is a presentation of how we create our own universe through our skewed perception of reality, filling in blanks with missing information and (sometimes) confusing banal human behavior with the insidiousness of gross conspiracy theories.
Hanged animals recall the subtext of Andrzej Zulawski’s swan song Cosmos (2015), in which a hanged sparrow presents a similar conversation piece about how we interpret environments to fit with our preferred narratives on reality. With colleagues presented as more oblivious and annoying in their ignorance rather than willfully manipulative, Exil is an overview of how a little kindness can go a long way, or at least defuse the tempest of miscommunications which can ensue from negative assumptions.
Enhanced tremendously by a fidgety score from Benedikt Schiefer and by Matteo Cocco’s sickly green office interiors (the work environment resembles a gothic hospital), Exil is ripe with menace. Director Ulrich Kohler (who has previously prized the outsider perspective, from 2002’s Bungalow, 2011’s Sleeping Sickness and even the last human survivors in his 2018 In My Room) is on hand as story editor, while director Maren Ade serves as one of several high profile producers on a film which expertly contemplates how we allow ourselves to perceive information—and ends brilliantly on a note which suggests it’s by our doing, sometimes, which lands us on the wrong side of the curtain.
Reviewed on January 27th at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – World Cinema Dramatic Competition – 121 Mins.