By the time it acquired the power of speech, cinema was already a complex artistic form with the capacity to capture moods, build characters, and tell stories. Though 1927 may have been the year in which Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer ushered in the age of Talkies, it was also the year in which Fritz Lang produced Metropolis and William A. Wellman’s Wings picked up the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture. Though synchronised sound and dialogue would eventually go on to revolutionise the industry and change the face of film forever, the art of silent storytelling has never gone away. To this day, films like Jose Luis Guerrin’s In The City of Sylvia, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist and Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep Movie remind us of how well films can speak even when they do not say a word. Diemo Kemmesies’ debut feature Silent Youth harkens back to the era of silent film as while it may contain quite a bit of dialogue, its true power lies in what the characters do not say.
Marlo (Martin Bruchmann) is a taciturn engineering student who has travelled to Berlin in order to spend some time with a female friend (Linda Schule). Finding himself in a strange city with little money and nothing to do, Marlo wanders the streets until a young man brushes past him and returns his gaze. Marlo cannot help himself from staring until the young man asks whether they might know each other. Within seconds of meeting, the two men are sharing a moment and dancing around the question of their respective sexualities: Do you have a girlfriend? Have you ever been with another man? The answers are invariably negative but the softening body language and growing intimacy suggest that there is a lot more going on here than a chance encounter between strangers.
The two boys agree to meet up the following day but while Kirill (Josef Mattes) seemed eager to take Marlo’s number, he is very slow to give him a call. Despite the pair having only just met, Kirill’s absence from Marlo’s life is all-pervasive. Taciturn and introverted at the best of times, Marlo clams even tighter shut until a friendly interrogation by his friend invites the admission that while he did not meet a girl, he did meet a guy. The traditions of visual storytelling live on in art house film because art house films like to encourage thought about what might be going through the characters’ minds. Silent Youth is, at times, uncomfortably silent but the silence encourages us to think about the characters and connect with their emotional states. For example, Marlo’s friend keeps making jokes about Marlo hooking up with a local girl but when Marlo effectively comes out to her, her face says more about her feelings of embarrassment and regret than mere words ever could. The film’s terms of engagement are made even clearer when Marlo and Kirill wind up being driven around by Kirill’s equally silent father; When Marlo asks why the old boy keeps staring at him, Kirill responds that he is trying to read his mind… just like the audience.
Silent Youth is a beautifully shot film that positively revels in its long silences. However, despite shifting from one pregnant pause to another, the film never feels repetitive as each of the silences reflects a different mood and another stage in the boys’ burgeoning relationship. Sometimes the silence is framed with sunlight and uncut grass in a way that evokes warmth and lust, other times the silence finds Kirill leaning back into a darkened corner as a means of capturing a momentary panic over the decision to have sex with a man. Despite this being his first feature film, Diemo Kemmesies’ direction is subtle but assured and the performances he coaxes from his actors are nothing short of mesmerising.
As admirably short as it is focused, Silent Youth is a sensitive, engaging, and technically brilliant film that firmly establishes Diemo Kemmesies as a major talent for the future.