From Austria, this psychological thriller has strong echoes through cinema history, as writer-director Gregor Schmidinger demonstrates his love of filmmakers like Jean Cocteau, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Gaspar Noe. Screening at London’s BFI Flare, Nevrland is a bold, provocative story that digs into the mind of its teen protagonist with psychedelic intensity. So it’s not surprising that it thoroughly unnerves the audience.
At the centre of the story is 17-year-old Jakob (Simon Frühwirth), who cares for his housebound grandfather (Wolfgang Hübsch) and has just started a new job working alongside his father (Josef Hader) as an industrial butcher. In his rare private moments, he hides in his room watching gay porn on his laptop, nervously terrified that someone will find out about his sexuality. Then one day on a webcam site, he makes a connection with 26-year-old Kristjan (Paul Forman). This brings up even more anxiety, because Jakob has never even kissed a guy. When this emotional upheaval causes problems at work, Jakob’s doctor prescribes strong mood-altering drugs. Then when they finally meet in person, Kristjan offers him something even more powerful.
What follows is a trip into a rabbit hole in which Jakob has to come to grips with his repressed sexuality and his crippling daddy issues. In his mind, this is all blurred with his own imaginative daydreams of how he wants his life to go. Schmidinger puts the audience right into Jakob’s perspective, swirling confusingly in a variety of directions. The film looks simply amazing, using light and colour to create vividly lurid imagery without the need for expensive digital trickery. And it’s made even more effective by the emotional resonance running through Jakob’s odyssey, even as it becomes darker and much more intense as it goes along.
In his first feature film, young actor Frühwirth dives full-on into this difficult role, often wearing nothing but a pair of underpants. Most remarkable is that he downplays each moment, which draws the audience in further and further because, as seen in flickers in his eyes, Jakob’s frustrations, fears and yearnings are all so easy to identify with. Looking through his eyes, it’s no wonder that the people around him are rather mysterious. Each has a very strong presence, but no one quite makes sense, which cleverly adds to feelings of uncertainty. And Forman brings a superbly enigmatic presence to the entire film, a cool guy who seems to be up to something that could be either wonderful or terrifying. Or maybe both.
Viewers who need a clear-cut narrative structure might find Nevrland a little frustrating, but it’s the film’s clever blurring of past and present that makes it notable, as is the way it delves so profoundly into a young man’s imagination. Wherever he is, Jakob is tormented by his thoughts. And Schmidinger has created a lot of imagery that’s darkly disturbing, from the slabs of blood-dripping meat at Jakob’s workplace to a super-seedy gay nightclub with its flashing lights, pounding music and shadowy darkroom. So it’s remarkable that the film actually feels exhilaratingly hopeful as it follows Jakob’s journey into the light.