With the recent US premiere of her latest film Pelican Blood at Fantastic Fest, Katrin Gebbe returns once again to appreciative audiences in Austin after her fearless 2013 debut film Nothing Bad Can Happen. With the latter devastating audiences across the globe since its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, Pelican Blood reveals Gebbe to be a filmmaker now in full flight, more than capable of tackling confronting difficult questions around cliché-defying representations of mother-child bonds.
Hinging on an extraordinary central performance by stalwart German actor Nina Hoss (a frequent collaborator with Berlin School auteur Christian Petzold, amongst others), Pelican Blood’s title recalls a medieval legend about a mother pelican who pierces her breast to feed her dead chicks to bring them back to life. These themes of motherhood and self-sacrifice are not opaque in Gebbe’s sophomore feature as it follows Hoss’s Wiebke, a stable owner who specializes in training mounted police horses. The film’s core action tracks the consequences of her decision to expand her small, happy family unit made up of herself and her adopted child Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo) to three with the arrival of Bulgarian orphan Raya (Katerina Lipovska).
While a highly polished film made with unyielding confidence, there is in the film’s dialogue and performance styles especially a kind of low-key realism in Goebbe’s treatment of Wiebke’s day-to-day life. This is fundamental to the increasing, inescapable fact that Raya is a deeply troubled child; coming from a life of unimaginable trauma, Wiebker and Nicolina discover that not only is Raya psychologically and emotionally challenged to the point of verging on almost feral, she’s also extremely dangerous.
Yet despite her clever utilization of horror genre iconography and motifs in key moments (to say more would be a spoiler), just as significant is Gebbe’s refusal to slip into the lazy clichés of the ‘evil child’ trope. The more we learn about Raya and the more shocking her behaviour is revealed to be to both us and Wiebke herself, the harder Gebbe makes it for us to criticize Wiebke’s increasingly frantic determination to help the child.
It is on this front that the inherent power of Pelican Blood is precisely how intuitively – and successfully – Gebbe treads the extremely delicate, volatile thematic terrain of her film. Questions of sacrifice, maternal determination, stubbornness and most importantly of all very real questions about duty of care (to both ourselves and others) are impossible to avoid in the film. Every step of the way, Gebbe clearly and consciously refuses to take the easy way out.
Pelican Blood is not an easy film to watch, and while its climax may baffle some, for some of us who have walked the hard yards of motherhood, it speaks of indefinable truths and systems of knowledge difficult to articulate. Pelican Blood is one of the year’s most fearless films, not merely because of what it dares to tackle subject-wise, but how determinedly it adheres to its own free spiritedness right until its very final moments.