Reviews Short Narrative

Tesoro: The Treasure Hunt (2020) – 4.5 stars

Director: Patrick Büchting

Writers: Patrick Büchting, Anna Lena Höhne, Charlotte Paulsen

Cast: Jana Münster, Lennart König, Eugen Tarasov

Running time:  25 mins

An extraordinary product of late capitalism in Europe has been the mass migration of North Europeans to the Mediterranean every summer on holiday – even in the middle of a global pandemic. This is so deeply woven into the texture of European life that it has seemed almost a human right. In March 2020, at the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, a German government minister hastened to assure voters that they would still be able to enjoy the Mediterranean beaches in the coming summer. Paradoxically, at that very moment, refugees from the Global South were housed in concentration camps near to the beaches while warships patrolled offshore to deter any new arrivals. This ruling ethos was neatly reversed by a famous Thessaloniki graffito: “Refugees Welcome! Tourists Fuck Off!”

Europe is currently in the thralls of the second wave of the great bio-environmental crisis; making Patrick Büchting’s deft and accomplished Treasure Hunt seems almost prelapsarian – characteristic of the time before the Fall of Man; innocent and unspoilt. Büchting interposes night scenes in Germany with the dazzling sunshine of Mallorca. The protagonists are three young friends, Joanna (Jana Münster), Oliver (Lennart König), Mischa (Eugen Tarasov). They journey to Mallorca to continue a game of treasure hunt, played on and offline.

Joanna persuades the others to take up the offer from Oliver’s Aunt of the use of a sail yacht to explore a remote island where a hidden treasure is marked on a map that has arrived in a mysterious envelope. Or rather half a map, as the joining up of the map with its other half is a key part of the plot. As the journey begins, we are shown Oliver comforting Joanna over the death of a friend. However, as the narrative develops, we become confused as to the identity of the friend who has died. We see the development of a romantic relationship between Oliver and Joanna juxtaposed with Joanna’s relationship with the more socially awkward Mischa. We are then shown Mischa comforting Joanna on the death of Oliver.

The identity of who has died is only resolved in the film’s climactic final scenes. The cut-backs to the northern night develop the treasure hunt storyline: as part of the game the friends have to undertake the dangerous task of climbing the scaffolding of a high church steeple in the moonlight. One of the friends has fallen to their death leaving guilt and grief to the survivors.

Büchting has given us a bildungsroman using the treasure hunt as the central metaphor. What comes through is the director’s evident sympathy for his characters – in a coming of age drama it does help liking who you are filming – and his awareness of how the loss of a friend poses hard questions for a young person coming to terms with the world, grief, the arbitrary and the contingent.

Büchting is aided by accomplished and engaging performances from Münster, König and Tarasov. The employment of the treasure hunt motif could have been a difficult one to pull-off without appearing trite and obvious. Büchting’s approach is subtle and successful. The stand-out devices are the use of a stone gateway portal on the island and of an Old Media photo album. As the friends go through the portal, we are journeying into the underworld, toward resolution and the realisation of who is actually dead. The finding of the photo album where the memories of the three friends are reified as the ‘timeless treasure’ from the joined-up map is a beautiful moment.

Relating to the minimal cast, one aspect of Treasure Hunt strikes me now, as I work from home amidst the second wave virus restrictions. Apart from the back of the head of someone as Joanna, Mischa, and Oliver breakfast on the quayside, the three friends are the only people we see in the entire film: it is as if they are in their own pandemic bubble. It is primarily a great way to heighten the intensity of the relationships and to allude to the feeling that when we are young only ourselves and friends truly ‘exist’ – but it is also eerily prescient.

Of the fine team Büchting assembled for the movie, Lino Jednat who played and composed the music deserves special mention. The score efficiently drives the pace and atmosphere – the theme that emphasises the adventurous thrill of the sail journey to the island is simply exhilarating. The decision to set the North in darkness and the South, for the most part, in light was a bold one and works well – reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s Nixon where the narrative is at night but the flashbacks to Milhouse’s childhood are in vintage technicolour.

Given the intricacies of its plotting, it was perhaps inevitable that Treasure Hunt would have the odd non sequitur: if Oliver were the one to die, would Joanna and Mischa be holidaying on his Aunt’s yacht? Meanwhile, there are two shots which may draw a few cringes – to emphasise doom we are twice shown seagulls circling against darkening clouds – I know ravens and vultures are hard to find but really? At the same time, the Mallorca landscape is filmed as if it is a tourist advertisement – there is no interrogation of its Otherness. L’Avventura it is not. But, overall, these are minor quibbles.

Combining a coming of age drama with a Hitchcockian psycho-thriller in a short narrative film seems like an impossible juggling act, but Treasure Hunt shows what can be achieved by the remarkable ambition of a young director, as for the most part Büchting succeeds in his admirable gambit. On occasion the intricacies of the hunt and of the interpersonal relationships left this viewer struggling – something only resolvable on a second viewing – but the thought occurred to me that the director might have been using a the confusion of what happened in real time as a device – similar to Ruben Östlund’s approach in Force Majeure.

I am genuinely excited by Büchting’s talent and eagerly anticipate his and his team’s next project. With regards to this one; for this North European, the now (one hopes) temporarily lost opportunity to travel South, in the manner of Goethe and the companions of Treasure Hunt is portrayed to the self as a journey of meaning and self-discovery – never vapid tourism. But, standing on the beach at Cefalu looking up at the wonders of the basilica or watching the Treasure Hunt, off camera there will always be in frame another non-tourist to the South: ‘a frightened baby on a foreign shore’.

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