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Indy Film Fest: Treppe Aufwärts

by on July 15, 2016
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Treppe Aufwarts - inside

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Adam is a man at the end of himself. Played by Hanno Koffler in the German drama “Treppe Aufwärts,” Adam tools around the mean streets driving a taxi, occasionally stopping into seedy joints to drink and play electronic slot machines. He gains no joy from either; indeed, happiness to him seems as remote as the moon.

He lives in a shambling home on the wrong end of the town, taking care of his father (Christian Wolff), who’s into the deep stages of dementia. If Adam attacks the slots in a businesslike manner, then his dad does so with manic need. Occasionally he sneaks out of the home to play, feeding coin after coin into the machine, seeking a repeat of his big payoff decades ago when he hit three cherries and 10,000 Marks poured out.

Then Adam’s 16-year-old son, Ben (Matti Schmidt-Schaller), shows up at the airport. He’s just run away from home after being suspended for stealing at school. Adam and Ben haven’t really talked for a couple of years. The kid’s glum, uncommunicative, openly defiant.

Adam tells him right out it’d be better if he went back to school, went back to his mom’s … or even just went. But long-buried paternal instincts start to reemerge, and father reaches out.

But soon Ben has fallen in with a criminal (Patrick Wolff, son of Christian) who also has a hand in the slots. He’s got an in with the software developer behind them who knows how to beat the machines. The connection doesn’t play the slots himself but sells the algorithm to people who pay him a percentage. Soon Ben is enlisted as his collector and wannabe best friend.

Written and directed by Mia Maariel Meyer, “Treppe Aufwärts” feels more like the start of a good idea for a movie rather than a fully formulated one. It’s wonderfully moody and atmospheric; it reminded me very much of 2014’s “The Drop,” starring Tom Hardy. A few square blocks of cityscape end up feeling like a large and very full world.

But the movie’s plot spins sideways rather than building itself up. The title translates roughly as “step up,” but the film ends up being too much about process and exposition than payoff. We know things are going to come to a head with Ben’s boss and a troublesome client (Ken Duken), so we tap our foot waiting for the inevitable. Similarly, Adam’s relationship with a small diner owner, Dosie (Karolina Lodyga), feels obligatory and sparsely sketched.

Koffler is a solid, mournful presence, though, and manages to carry us past the drab spots. Here’s a well-intentioned movie that’s less than the sum of its parts.

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