Black Box (2023) kicks off with a simple but interesting opening scene which sets the tone for the rest of the film. Director Asli Özge does not waste any time in introducing us to many characters in a short period of time. She starts setting up the different pieces of the film and reveals them in layers one by one. Black Box is a claustrophobic, fast-paced drama that paints a stark picture of the lives of residents in an apartment building in Berlin.
The film starts with a tall construction crane moving a glass structure into the backyard of an apartment building. We later know that it belongs to a management company and the landlord Johannes Horn (Felix Kramer) plans to use it as his new office. The next day police blocked the entrance to the building prohibiting anyone from entering or leaving the building. The residents begin to question Horn as everyone needs to get out but they are told not to. We meet each of the residents as the film reveals each one’s problems and how this incident is beginning to affect them.
Henrike Koch (Luise Heyer) and her husband Daniel (Sascha Alexander Geršak) are planning to buy their apartment as they begin to face financial issues. But, little do they know that Horn plans to sell their apartments after renovating them. Henrike sees a neighbor couple Ismail Sultanov (Timur Mogomedgadzhiev) and Madonna (Manal Issa) making love and even though she tries to resist watching, she cannot help herself as she yearns for that in her life which is sadly filled with problems. Ismail is originally from Russia and Madonna is from Lebanon and they are repeatedly racially profiled by various tenants throughout the film. The issue of the trash can being moved to another location comes up when the cans are moved right underneath the apartment where Erik Behr (Christian Berkel) lives. He then sets out to get signatures from all tenants to protest against the new garbage dump. Meanwhile, Horn announces that no one is allowed to leave the building. He begins to assert himself and uses his position to enforce new rules to create an atmosphere of fear among the tenants.
Felix plays the role of a caring and concerned landlord to perfection. He knows how to stir the pot between the tenants prompting them to question and quarrel with each other. The tenants have no clue as to what Horn’s motive is and Horn deftly masks it by changing the focus to someone else. As the fear and uncertainty of the situation grows, the tenants begin to doubt each other especially if they are immigrants from another country. The director aimed to make this film and explore the depths of every human being living in that apartment building. A granular look into their lives and what is revealed is nothing new. Ordinary people doing everything they can to live and exist to the best they can. There are scenes when tenants spy on others through their windows. The realization that anything you do is being watched by someone, a voyeuristic glimpse into people’s lives is enough to cause paranoia.
There are a lot of scenes shot in the backyard and the sound design is just brilliantly done. The hustle and bustle of the streets, the police sounds, and people whispering or shouting in the backyard add to the already realistic tension in every scene. The director has touched upon a lot of important topics that will long be discussed after the credits roll. The forceful takeover and eviction of people from their land has been done before. But they have only been done from a macro point of view. This film, however, looks into everything at the microscopic level. The cinematography by Emre Erkmen is perfect for this kind of film. He does not try anything flashy but sticks to simple shots, most of which seem to be shot without a tripod. He intentionally chose to shoot Black Box this way so he could be nimble enough to be reactive to the actor’s emotions and actions.
The ensemble cast did an excellent job portraying a society with people from different backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, etc., that it is hard to pick anyone who outperformed. Director Asli Ozge is very detail-oriented and has given every character or animal in this film some level of importance. Human beings have their own beliefs and ways of thinking. Even a small disturbance from an external force can result in fear, distrust, doubt, hate, and anger towards others. There are a lot of characters in this film and it is hard to give each one a proper story, but that makes it interesting. The audience begins to form an opinion of each character and how they might be up towards the end of the film.
Black Box (2023) is one of those films that will question our own self beliefs and nature towards others. The question is what would we do when we are in a similar situation. Will we defend someone else blindly? Will we take sides? or Will do the right thing and find a way to stand together and fight against power?
Black Box (2023) was screened as part of the International Competition and Women in Cinema categories in the recently concluded Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF).