For long periods of Subject 101, our protagonist – identified in the end credits only as “101” (Cem Ali Gültekin) – has no idea what’s going on. He finds himself in gruesome scenes of violence and carnage, sometimes with himself holding the gun. He seems to wake up from them, only to find he’s in another cruel unreality. A scar on his shoulder moves back and forth. A tattoo on his arm changes shape. He has lost all sense of time, of self, of control.
And for much of that time, we’re as clueless as he is. What happened to him is not entirely a mystery; writer-director Tom Bewilogua plants clues on a Manchurian Candidate-mind control scenario before we had a chance to ask. But we’re as uncertain as he is about what’s real and what’s not, what it’s really used for and why. It is a profoundly exotic experience that is difficult to get rid of, even if – or especially because – Subject 101 offers so little clarity by its end.
A nightmarish and disorienting journey.
Although the central premise of Subject 101 is a piece of dystopian sci-fi (as the film itself shows through a report on the future of chip technology), it’s firmly rooted in the real world – in particular, Hamburg 2019. A Syrian refugee looking for housing and employment enrolls in an enterprise program co-sponsored by the German government, and at first it seems to be exactly what he needs. The apartment he’s been given is small and dingy – and, in an ominous omen, stained with the blood of a former tenant – and the jobs assigned to him are uninspiring. But he moved in, made the space his own, learned German in his spare time and slowly got to know his colleagues.
Then he’s shot at a sleazy security gig, and a menacing figure (Guido Föhrweisser) in a police car – the license plate ends in “666”, because Subject 101 has no use for subtlety – finds him as he passes out. Eventually, our protagonist wakes up with a beard he didn’t have when he passed out, and an incision on his shoulder that he can’t explain. And then the real nightmare begins.
Bewilogua makes every effort to make us feel unmoored. The scenes are lit in eerie shades of green and red (the colors of Syria’s flag, surely not coincidentally), and surrounded by shadows so velvety black they look like voids. The camera (Alex Beier served as cinematographer) tilts at odd angles as it winds through hallways that don’t belong where they are. Very wide shots and surveillance cameras induce a feeling of paranoia, while extreme close-ups make faces unrecognizable. Subject 101 sometimes aims for a simple kind of horror, with crunchy sound effects and visions of flesh so mangled it looks like hamburger meat. But it has a bigger impact with the weirdness of a half-eaten apple in a pool of blood, or the smiling balloon of a child floating unconsciously in a room.
Everything that happened to the character left him speechless, and since he’s the only one onscreen for much of the film, Subject 101 relies heavily on Gültekin’s expressive face. His large eyes widen with despair or bewilderment, or sink with grief, or freeze with a frightening emptiness. He’s a character that has our sympathy simply because he’s clearly been forced into a terrifying situation, but it’s Gültekin’s engaged performance that keeps us firmly rooted in his headspace as he is shaken from one hell to another.
Amidst this fog, other voices are being heard through the media. Of particular note are the frequent non-updates on the unsuccessful search for a suspected terrorist and Syrian refugee (Youssef Maghrebi) who recently disappeared after making seemingly bizarre claims about mind control. But there are other recurring motifs too, like the images of wars past and present frequently shown on the protagonist’s television when he comes, or the calmly delivered warnings of the “chaos and disorientation” that could accompany an economic downturn or , God forbid. , a pandemic. (Here’s where I remind you the movie is set in 2019.) They’re a disturbing stew of anxiety and dread laced with bits of unconvincing optimism, which is to say, they amount to a media diet like the one that many of us consume every day. daytime.
But at the same time Subject 101 is adept at provoking uncomfortable emotions or raising tricky issues, he’s not as good at figuring out what he wants to do with them once he’s called them all. Halfway through the 86-minute run, I began to wonder if the together the rest of the movie was going to be a long series of nasty rug pulls with no clear end in sight; fortunately, a temporary shift of focus to a more lucid character (Guntbert Warns) begins to revive the plot for the third act. Even so, the film ends more as a jumble of ideas and feelings than a single cohesive narrative or message. Those who prefer their thrillers to explain all of their goofy edges might find themselves particularly exasperated.
Although maybe that’s also the point. Subject 101 doesn’t offer a new diagnosis for society’s ills or suggest a cure, and it doesn’t claim to know where it’s all headed. Instead, it serves as a fun mirror reflection of something many of us have already sensed in the air – some sense of deep mistrust and hopelessness, confusion bordering on hopelessness. This will bring no comfort to anyone and is guaranteed to frustrate anyone looking for concrete answers. But for a certain type of mindset, it might provide some validation.