Novel adaptation “so what of there”: heimatfilm on coke

Jakob Lass has adapted the St. Pauli novel "So was von da" by Tino Hanekamp – authentic and funny, but with tasteless film tricks.

Cinematically, there’s still room for improvement: Oskar and Pablo celebrate the last club night Photo: DCM / Gordon Timpen

It sounds like a contradiction: a novel adaptation in which all scenes were improvised by the actors. Usually, a director tries to get as much as possible of the author’s words over into the film adaptation, but here all the dialogue ended up in the wastebasket. In 2011, Tino Hanekamp succeeded in becoming a bestseller with his debut "So Was Von Da." In it, the Hamburg author told of the last night of a Hamburg club – from the owner’s perspective. Hanekamp himself was a co-founder of the Hamburg club Weltbuhne, which was forced to close in 2005.

An autobiographical book whose author knew what he was writing about: Hanekamp has captured the attitude to life of the clubbers, musicians and artists well. But he is also no Sven Regener; polished dialogues are not his forte. His protagonists should sound as natural and spontaneous as possible – and in this respect, the approach of director Jakob Lass is quite plausible.

In this sense, "So was von da" is surprisingly true to the original. Lass cheats a little, though, because he works a lot with the narrative voice of his protagonist Oskar – who then speaks original sentences from the novel off-screen. Lass also divides the plot into chapters with titles like "The Dead Elvis" or "The Octopus Woman," making the film seem like a novel adaptation after all.

Here Lass doesn’t seem to trust his own resources. Yet the atmospherically intense and authentic staging is his strength. In the Hamburg club Rakete, he had parties for four days, with his actors acting alongside real guests.

Lass does not seem to trust his own means. At the same time, the atmospherically intense staging is his strength.

The St. Pauli original Karl Heinz Schwensen plays an ex-pimp named Kiezkalle – basically himself. And whoever embodies a musician in the film can really make music, like newcomer Mathias Bloech and Bela B. Felsenheimer from the arzte. The concert footage in the club – from punk rock to a romantic ballad – is convincingly done by Lass.

A lot happens on this last club night. Oskar is pressured by Kiezkalle and has to raise 10,000 euros in the course of the night – otherwise he will lose a finger. His best friend Rocky, son of a terminally ill rock star and the Hamburg Senator of the Interior, has become a successful musician and is suffering from an identity crisis. In addition, Oskar’s great love Mathilda suddenly reappears and Nina from his gang also reveals to him that she has a brain tumor.

With so many narrative threads, "So Was Von Da" inevitably becomes an episodic film in which the individual stories stand side by side rather than merge into one another.

Funny Antifa

Of course, a proper drug rush should not be missing, but in this Lass remains disappointingly conventional, copying the stylistic devices that are common in genre films from Hollywood. A dream vision in which Oskar proposes to his Mathilda from the stage is also anything but original. And when Oskar joins in a high-spirited brawl with a friend in a flooded toilet, it’s more trying than splashy, and one wonders how quickly their clothes dry again.

Other episodes are better done. For example, Hamburg’s interior senator gets stuck in the club’s elevator and orders a police operation to get her out of it. Corinna Harfouch’s ranting in this role is beautifully biting and funny, and she then comes up with the best improvised line in the film, which sums up her character precisely: "I never want to see you near me again!" she rails at one of her servants, who had the misfortune of being locked in the elevator with her.

At the gig of Oskar’s best friend Rocky’s band, a brawl breaks out on stage, with the musician finally holding his smashed guitar in his hand like Jeff Beck once did in Antonioni’s "Blow up". Whether this is a quote or not, it is a beautiful moment in the film.

Distorted voices

Also funny is the threat with Antifa, with which Oskar’s friends want to put Kiezkalle’s gang of thugs to flight – in moments like these, "So was von da" is a nice Hamburg Heimatfilm.

Jakob Lass let the actors improvise during the shooting, but stylistically his film is anything but freestyle. For example, color dramaturgy and lighting are often used in a highly dramatic way. There are sequences with extreme backlighting, for example, in which only the contours of the figures can be made out. And Lass put a lot of work into post-production, often working with jump and stop cuts, i.e. breaking the classic editing rules by jumping forward in a shot or letting the image freeze briefly.

"So What of There."Directed by Jakob Laas, with Niklas Bruhn, Martina Schone-Radunski, David Schutter a.o. Germany 2018, 91 min.

Lass also likes to use the split-screen technique, in which the film image is divided and one can either show parallel actions at the same time or one from different angles. He even alienates some of the improvised dialogues by distorting the voices. These are stylistic devices of a cinema that narrates subjectively rather than realistically, that is, defines the characters through their sensations rather than their actions.

Niklas Bruhn got the lead role mainly because he looks so much like Tino Hanekamp, but in his film debut he plays Oskar confidently as a melancholic hedonist. Thanks to him, the character has charm and depth – even though the script has him rushing through the night like a skipjack.