Hanna Slak’s Not a Word (Kein Wort) is a Symphonic Piece of Maternal Gothic

In Hanna Slak’s Not a Word (Kein Wort), Lars Goff (Jona Levin Nicolai) and his conductor mother Nina Palcek (Maren Eggert) share an apartment that is beautifully appointed but austere. The weight of isolation hangs heavy in the air like the drone he sends to “communicate” with her. Nina is in rehearsals for an upcoming performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Lars is perhaps rehearsing for something darker.

An accident at school brings Lars out of Nina’s peripheral vision and makes her reckon with their estrangement. Nina is not a terrible mother – certainly no more a terrible parent than Lars’ constantly absent father, Alex (Medhi Nebbou). The expectation that she be the better parent has made her intuitively rebel against the double standard. The same double standard which means that if she misses any rehearsals with the Berlin orchestra, her position as Maestra is essentially forfeit.

Trying to maintain some form of control over her son’s sullen and spiralling mood, Nina agrees to take the weekend off and entrust the orchestra to her junior conductor, Yura (Yura Yang), and go to their former summer holiday getaway, an isolated coastal house in Brittany with him. Loch Maria in winter is almost as forbidding as Lars, whose anger whips around her like the wind.

Hanna Slak crafts a piece of maternal gothic. From the moment Nina and Lars get on the ferry to Brittany all that exists is constant uncertainty and anxiety. Is it possible that Lars is a murderer? And if so, is he going to repeat the pattern with Guen (Juliane Siebecke) the curious daughter of Barban (Maryam Zaree) who has taken over the small convenience store on the island?

Slak pins almost all the action to Nina’s perspective. The music which accompanies her thought patterns (written by Amelie Legrand and using Mahler’s fifth as the motif) is at times impossibly complex. Claire Mathon’s cinematography is the epitome of the Shakespearean “sympathetic background.” A dead gull substitutes for the body of a murdered child. Telephones ring and are left unanswered. When Nina decides she can no longer tolerate Lars’ behaviour and they will be leaving the island a storm prevents them.

Within the squall is Lars – a damaged teen. He has difficulty maintaining peer relationships at school and is bullied. Neither parent is turning up to listen to what his concerned teacher has to say. It is possible the “accident” which landed Lars in hospital (a fall from a window) was not an accident at all. Everyone around Lars has been interpreting his behaviour except for Guen. Lars’ truculence isn’t because he is a brat – although he does act like one – it is because he feels his mother’s distrust.

Hanna Slak has written an intelligent psychological thriller centred around the gendered expectations which tug at women artists. Nina’s boss, Julian (Marko Mandić) is ready to replace her with a younger male conductor so he can avoid her “disaster.” Women are set up to compete not to co-operate. When they do work together, Barban with Nina, or Nina with Yura, there is progress.

“We’ve already damaged as much as we can, or did we miss something?” Lars asks Nina. Both end up bruised and cut (physically and metaphorically) but they also become reconstructed. Lars adores Nina and his disappointment isn’t because she is focused on her work, but rather it is in the silence that has crept up on them. A silence so profound it has caused Nina to pre-empt Lars to stop him saying something she might not want to hear.

Not a Word is a difficult film. Neither Nina nor Lars are particularly sympathetic characters. They are sharp angles. Yet it is the lack of trying to put a veneer on Nina and Lars which makes the film resonate. Maren Eggert is extraordinary as Nina, so too Jona Levin Nicolai as Lars. The genius in Hanna Slak’s film is allowing them to be awful so they can become better. Not a Word is symphonic.

Director: Hanna Antonina Wojcik Slak

Cast: Maren Eggert, Jona Levin Nicolai, Maryam Zaree

Writer: Hanna Antonina Wojcik Slak

Producer: Michel Balagué, Christophe Buncher, Miha Cernec

Music: Amélie Legrand

Cinematography: Claire Mathon

Editor: Bettina Böhler

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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