I could wish the Brisbane Queer Film Festival weren’t limited to just over a week each year. The atmosphere at a Powerhouse screening is so convivial. People don’t seem as intent on creating an impression of glamour as they often are in bars and clubs. They’re relaxed, they smile, they’re lively in their opinions. Conversations detour delightfully into the unexpected, axel-greased by a little alcohol and laughter. If you’re single, like me, you feel renewed hope that somewhere out there is the person who’d like to share a life of arts-sampling with you in between work, sleep and making love.
One of the sessions I caught was the German feature Stadt Land Fluss, marketed in English under the rather generic title Harvest, is a hesitant romance set on a state-sponsored farm that trains young agricultural workers.
Director Benjamin Cantu has chosen a documentary hand-held camera style and a cast, apart from the two professional leads, of real-life farm workers. No one speaks much, and when they do they’re as brusquely matter-of-fact as when loping through their chores. Yet a quiet beauty pervades the film through the workers’ connection to the luminous landscape they labour in, so that even a task as mundane as sorting carrots acquires an aura of meditation.
The film’s initial focus is on the young Jacob. A good practical worker, he struggles academically even to meet the meagre paperwork demands of a registered farmer. Comments by his supervisor hint at a neglected, possibly brutalised, childhood. He’s certainly a loner amongst his agricultural fellows. Jacob shuns their leisure-time company, their taste for beer and junk food, he doesn’t respond to girls who clearly feel his attractions. He even seems disconnected from his own burgeoning virility. The reflection of his closed-eyed face in the bathroom mirror while he masturbates gives the impression of a sexuality relegated to the level of some irksome but necessary hygiene ritual. Kai Michael Müller is wonderfully real in the role. He holds his gently vulnerable features in a mask of determined indifference, only the tiniest ripples of emotion darting across his face.
Jacob’s existence is disturbed by the arrival of the handsome, sullen Marko, a new farm trainee whose back story remains tantalisingly obscure. All we find out is that he has abandoned a lucrative apprenticeship in the banking sector, while showing little enthusiasm for his new vocation. Almost the opposite, in fact – he seems intimidated, especially by animals. But grimly he persists, and we begin to suspect there is more driving him than stark necessity as he starts darting looks toward Jacob. The performance of Lukas Steltner is nicely judged. His ebony eyes at first linger only that extra nanosecond, suggesting a hope that hardly flickers long enough to be conscious of, let alone to entertain.
Marko’s increasing boldness, and Jacob’s growing awareness of him, now begin to unfold in scenes which will appeal to anyone with a taste for slow-burn romantic tension. The pair first touch incidentally while bagging grain. Later, seated in a stationary car, their approaches to closeness, followed by tactical retreats, feel as fraught as moves in a chess game. The faltering first kiss, when it comes, is beautifully realised. Jacob’s sense of both relief and panic is palpable. IHe soon forcibly withdraws, deeply conflicted and venting violently when alone.
Given the strong set up so far, it’s a little disappointing that from here the film seems unable to transcend the very predictable. I for one would have liked things to build to something a little more unsurprising than a drinking trip to Berlin, with some (admittedly sweet) tipsy petting before sleeping it off overnight in their ‘getaway’ car.
It’s not a question of sexual explicitness, more of the desire the film creates but doesn’t fulfil, of wanting to sense the nature of the pair’s developing bond. The characters have reached to a point where you feel they must begin to really talk to each other, yet it’s almost as if the film’s severely word-spare style prevents this from happening. Nonetheless, the film’s initial emotional journey makes it well worth viewing. Many will find much to savour in a vision of homoerotic attraction which charts its instinctive development in such a naturalistic way.