Director: Samuel J Punto
Writer: Samuel J Punto
Cast: Charys Schuler, Ethan Punto, Thorben Neuheuser, Akemi Mercer-Niewöhner
Running time: 7mins
One of the great luxuries of modern cinema is that actors have the use of both their voice and facial structure in glorious high-definition and with booming surround sound – something which helps even mediocre actors manage to convey at least some semblance of emotion onscreen. The cast of Verzerrung (or Distortion in English) has no such luxury, however.
Going about their business in silence on crackling Super8, the performers visages remain hidden behind masks for the duration of Samuel J Punto’s piece. While masking up during a Covid-19 shoot might be an excellent health and safety measure, it does put something of a wall between an audience and its players.
In spite of this, one of the most impressive things in this short film is that they still manage to engage us as the action unfolds. It is incredibly difficult to act with only the eyes – and the cast pull it off to their credit. Unfortunately, it is difficult to single out cast members for this – but two characters are particularly worthy of note here.
Verzerrung follows two groups – Die Wimperer (the diamonds) and Die Rauterer (the lashes) – who are chiefly separated by markings on their masks. As the two groups mill about in a deserted train yard, there seems to be little cause for antipathy between the apparent factions, besides their fairly arbitrary facial designs. Sadly, the initially serene environment rapidly becomes a battlefield, following a series of minor indiscretions being blown out of proportion by a television propped up between the two groups.
After one member of Die Wimperer brushes past a lone Rauter to walk ahead of them, an explosive hiss of white noise prompts all sides to tune in. In a tone similar to so much of the coverage relating to the daily barrage of abuse aimed at minorities – tarring them with one giant stick as malignant bogeymen thanks to some quite-probably dreamed up indiscretion of one or two individuals – the broadcast exclaims “This behaviour is outrageous!”
Of course, outrage sells, so it is no surprise that the television, apparently taking the role of the corporate media, soon has further hot-takes on the escalating tensions between the two groups. As it does, and the collectives consume ever more of the hatemongering content, the situation quickly reaches boiling point, and a violent confrontation sees a Rauter push a Wimper to the ground – before being stabbed fatally by a second member of the ‘opposing’ group.
One of the actors I would like to single out for praise is the wide-eyed and startled individual who looks set to receive a beating here. Gazing up from the floor in helpless alarm, the panic in their eyes does not remotely dim when another member of Die Wimperer – there is almost a dread there that says more violence is coming now. This hunch is swiftly proven correct; as the violence does indeed escalate into a larger conflict, of which the only real winners will be the sensationalist operators of the television.
While the war between the two groups comes to a head, this is not the end of Verzerrung, however. Nested within this broader narrative, the final shots see Punto’s camera come to rest on a young individual, glowering through their mask at the unfolding vehemence.
This is the second actor who deserves special plaudits. Even though their eyes are all we can see of them, they are enough to show an unnerving level of malice, burning out from behind their own mask. While a maternal figure enters to try and comfort the juvenile, this only offers a momentary distraction before they tune back into the propaganda before them – and that same sinister glare spreads back across those eyes.
It might not be an entirely original take on the matter, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. As the credits role, the idea that the most inhuman acts of violence may still be to come, and that they may well come from a character who we have only known as a child, is incredibly troubling. That’s something which Punto deserves a great deal of credit for – having planted the seeds in our mind for sustained thought on the dehumanising role mass media and consumer culture play in our world. Even after the end comes, we are left to wonder how that might have affected us, and our assumptions toward sections of society we have lapsed into believing it is simply natural to hate.
From a technical standpoint, Verzerrung deserves praise for its gorgeously grainy commitment to Super8, as well as its ominous electronic score, underscoring the unsettling atmosphere Punto’s set-piece has crafted with every crack and echo. Combined with the masks, the reverberating baritone keys of the film conjure up an Eyes Wide Shut vibe – and since that is also an incredibly disturbing rumination on violence and power, that is entirely appropriate.
What is less appropriate is the arguably unseemly use of the Papyrus font, straight out of every graphic designer’s worst nightmare. For a project of this kind, a more sober, straight-forward font would have better fitted the bill – and felt less like it belongs on a flier for the local takeaway. At the same time, while it works well to initially shock us, the stock white-noise used to bookend the television’s announcements feels a little too clean to be truly unnerving, and recording something less uniform might have helped counteract that.
With that being said, I am being absurd in the level of nit-picking I am subjecting Verzerrung to – particularly as its writer and director is 16 years old. Looking back at the things I produced when I was that age, I am both thoroughly embarrassed for myself, and excited by what the future holds for such a promising young filmmaker.
Many conventional filmmakers have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic, with lockdown restrictions severely limiting what they can do in order to denote certain narrative themes and plot beats. In stark contrast, filmmakers like Samuel J Punto show how artists can survive and thrive during the pandemic by taking to the world of experimental cinema. While he submitted his film to us just too late to fit it into the Indy Film Library festival in March, watch this space, because he is undoubtedly someone whose work we will be proud to feature in the not-so-distant future.