Ain’t no nihilism like German nihilism, cuz German nihilism don’t stop!
Did that sound like a protest slogan? Well, it’s been a long weekend of them. Perhaps it’s also a reaction against Axolotl Overkill, which, much like its 16-year-old anti-heroine, completely fails to capture the prevailing mood of the modern world it obviously thinks it knows so well. Worse, it not only fails to offer anything new, but it also fails to channel the 1970s sensibilities it so desperately, and ironically, desires to emulate.
Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) is a teenage girl in a meaningless search for meaning who keeps running into animals called axolotls, which are amphibious creatures who apparently reach adulthood without really maturing, remaining in a perpetually young state where they’re even able to regenerate any limbs that are cut off. It’s a bit of an on-the-nose analogy not only for Mifti, but also her father and the somewhat estranged siblings she resides with in a shabbily chic apartment. But can her life really be so pitiable? While it is mentioned that she’s recently lost her mother, she certainly has means of coping in her very privileged world.
She’s also looking for comfort in the usual wrong places, from an affair with a much older, criminally inclined woman (Arly Jover), to the party scene where she gets involved with a less older, but still wildly unstable actress named…Ophelia (Mavie Hörbiger). Jesus Christ. Anyway, Mifti flits from one encounter to another with few consequences. Even after she gets expelled from school, the teacher seems more upset about her challenging his authority then the potentially fascist nature of her challenge.
In another film, Mifti would be an interesting character. Usually it’s only male characters who unthinkingly follow their desires without a trace of regret or relatability. But even that’s old news now, since teenage girls have long since gotten more layered, with Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, and indie offerings such as the title character in Juno, India in Stoker, Ree in Winter’s Bone, Minnie in Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen, to name just a few. Hell, even Disney’s been upping their game lately, with princesses in Brave, Frozen, and now Moana coming free of love interests.
What Axolotl Overkill fails to understand is that the apathy powering its numbly beating heart is actually no longer relevant. People aren’t withdrawing. People are engaging, sometimes to a frightening degree. They’re plugged in, terrified of sensationalized stories of the Other coming to take what little ground they’re desperately clinging to, so much so they’re willing to put fascists in power. The reaction by the newly energized opposition has been immediate, and with good reason. Unlike the complicated political issues that preceded it, this is an agenda so clearly in the wrong, so potentially harmful, that there is real meaning in fighting it.
In essence, apathy is yesterday’s emotion. It’s not just a post-truth world, it’s a post-cool world. The popular kids nowadays are people like Lena Dunham, and the beautiful people are not only doing nerdy comic films, they only succeed insofar as they’re able to convince fans that they’re totally relatable. (Helllooo Taylor Swift.)
The movie also fails to live up to the ’70s films that were obviously a source of inspiration. The thing about those movies were that they made us uncomfortable. They toyed with conventions. They made us think. And Axolotl Overkill lacks the courage of its convictions, settling for being merely provocative without provoking thought. Bauer, the actress who plays Mifti, is even 27. It refuses to show us what her mistakes really look like, quickly cutting away from the various random sex she partakes in, along with the darker, rougher edges of the party scene she embraces.
The performances are wonderful, particularly Bauer’s, who does an excellent job playing a role ten years younger than her actual age. Writer-director Helene Hegemann shows an artful, sure hand throughout, but without a greater cause, it’s akin to shouting fire in an empty theater. Where is the reason to care?