“Ozren the inspired!”

The Whore's Son


directed by: Michael Sturminger

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One would think that after the excesses of a Fassbinder, nothing more could be said about the ‘Gast-Arbeiten’ or guest (read immigrant) labor in Germanic countries. But the brilliant utilitarianism of Gabriel Loidolt’s novel allows filmmaker Michael Sturminger to take it as merely a convenient setup: displaced people must find means of support while learning a new language and customs. In such a haze of half-comprehension surroundings are seen with childlike simplicity, ideal for storytelling. Further, this story of refugees from what was once Yugoslavia is told against a near-constant background murmur of the war in the Balkans, reminding us that there will be ever more waves of humanity undergoing ever more such crises of existence.

             Part of the film’s smoothness lies in the director’s ability to suggest a setting neatly and efficiently without having to put us through the mundane workings of an Austrian whorehouse, bar, or school. Nothing intrudes on these characters’ stories.

            The whore’s son is Ozren, an infant ready for the father’s abandonment. He is raised in an extended family with a pious aunt and worldly uncle while his mother plies her trade in the neighboring bordello. (“Waitressing” is the handy euphemism with which he explains his mother’s odd hours and inability to attend his school activities.) His age approximately doubles with each reel (3 or 4, 8, 16) bringing us quickly to his teenage world which will be the prime milieu of the film.

            The eight or nine year old Ozren has been briefly introduced to his mother’s real occupation by Pepi (an affable Georg Friedrich), the charming brothel manager, but he has ample opportunity to see for himself were he able to see past his adoring fantasy of a mother goddess. But we see the reality. We find him peeing uncontrollably while hiding behind his bedroom door, since getting to the shared bathroom outside the apartment would mean interrupting his mother at one of her ‘conquests.’ More to the point, it would mean letting her know he was watching. When later, as a young teen, he has the courage to make the journey past her bedding, she awakens perhaps to the possibility that their living arrangement must surely change. Her solution however is to go into “private practice” where both the standards and monetary rewards are much higher.

            She leaves the apartment to him, with his aunt and uncle as companions. As the brothel manager Pepi suggests, it is a setup most (certainly American) teens would dream of – support, with independent living, and mom visiting on Sundays. But to this teen who never had the security of stable parents it is a frightening prospect of yet another abandonment. He copes by finding work in the brothel itself, compulsively scrubbing away the sins of the residents, and endearing himself to the owner and female  ‘employees’ as well. He is a latter-day Mary Magdalene – with an uncle who reminds us that “even Jesus spent time among whores.”


             The mother, Silvija – her name reminds us of forest spirits and fertility – is convincingly played by the Russian actress Chulpan Khamatova. But this goddess exudes a businesslike sexuality. Rarely, we glimpse actual sensuality – but always through someone else’s eyes, as when the teenaged Ozren glimpses her partially uncovered form. More often her son is hiding from the inevitable embarrassments of being a male teen with a mother professionally oblivious to anyone’s need for privacy, as she hustles him out of his ‘thinking room’ - the bathroom out in the hall - or exposes him in a clothing store while he is changing.

For most of his scenes as the teenage Ozren, Stanislav Lisnic wears an expression hovering somewhere between watchful and pained, as if permanently expecting the blow - physical or emotional - that will surely fall any moment. Both he and Khamatova are so tightly focused on their roles and on their worlds, it’s as if both mother & son had been told to ‘reign it in’ except for her inevitable emotional outbursts & his flurries of manic activity.

            Uncle Ante - a superb characterization by Miki Manojlivic - is perhaps an ‘easy’ role to slip into. Another ‘guest arbeiter,’ he pulls from his vast life-experience to become an arbiter of right & wrong. Ozren brings out the pragmatic prophet in him: “It’s not whether or not I believe in God, but whether he believes in me,” he explains to the boy who, awakened to the falsity of his mother goddess, now questions every deity.


            When one sees past the many cinematic homages, there is real storytelling here, but in keeping with the linguistic and cultural alienation being presented it is mostly told in visual anecdote. A word or two of explanation may have helped if rarely and judiciously added. As a director, Sturminger is content to reveal things, not clutter the script with footnotes. It’s a technique that can mystify some viewers at times, as for instance in a brief subplot involving an émigré girl: The first breaks we see in Ozren’s façade are the stirrings of humanity - which some call puppy love - when he is falling for a recently displaced Serbian girl (Susan Sözübek, another astoundingly primitive face, like something off an early Greek vase). Her actions seem bizarre, almost surreal, to those who’ve never experienced devastating loss. But is there anyone who still hasn’t seen footage of the surviving children from the Beslan schoolhouse massacre?

            Astonishingly, as the mood darkens toward the final scenes in which Ozren’s stalking of his estranged mother finally bears grievous fruit, it is the filmmaker’s sense of humor which saves us. The final tragedy - and it is a real recipe for disaster - is deftly transformed by a light, almost comic touch. As we ponder which of many possible calamities the film will now pursue, we move from the meta-reality of the preceding film to a series of near Fellini-esque visions.

            In the final tableau - a view from directly overhead of the mother in a casket - Silvija is stunningly beautiful as if waiting for her Prince Charming. It is the child fantasy mother restored once again. The camera tracks out (straight up, actually) giving us a God’s eye view of the proceedings: a wake, a few mourners, the son fainting, etc.– until we get it; we learn what is important after all.


(c)2006 Louis Lopardi