IMMIGRATION GAME (Sci-Fi London Film festival)

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The premise of contemporary thriller Immigration Game is chilling. Inside a fortress Europe that has closed its borders to outsiders, Germany is the one country that still accepts refugees. But the price of securing German citizenship is appallingly high. New arrivals must compete in the titular reality TV show, a race for survival in which participants must cross from one side of Berlin to the other, evading the efforts of the city’s Hunters to capture and kill them. When Berlin resident and father-to-be Joe intervenes in the game to help an injured Runner, and defends himself from attack by a group of Hunters, he is convicted of murder. He has only two options: accept a life sentence, or join in the Game himself. 

From the first few seconds of the film’s opening sequence, which depicts a merciless gang killing amidst a pulsing urban nightscape, the “dystopian action-thriller” Immigration Game establishes its unflinching tone. Clearly influenced by genre movies such as The Warriors, Escape from New York and 16 Blocks, Zlatnik adds to his chase flick the additional frisson that he is extrapolating disturbing developments found in today’s news headlines. “It is very worrying that our film is already so close to reality,” the writer/director told the German media magazine DWDL. 

As Joe’s partner Karin and friends try without success to help him, he is forced to join a group of refugees released in a new round of the game. As the camera drones of the TV show track their movements (and record the deaths of many of their fellow competitors), Joe is saved by young Syrian refugee Faizah. Once the pair agrees to co-operate, they battle their way together towards the Fernsehturm TV tower in Alexanderplatz and to sanctuary. Shot on the streets of Berlin in just two weeks, Immigration Game gets great value from its real world locations, and the whole film is brimming with the nervous tension that comes from the hunters’ pursuit of the hunted. Throughout, it conjures up a sense of “the city” as a threatening and alien place. 

The film opts for a very naturalistic style, relying on shaky handheld camera footage and partially improvised dialogue to reinforce the cinéma-vérité feel. The film’s frequent violent scenes, as rival gangs The Darks, The Combats and The Swags close in on their prey, are also fairly brutal. Despite an ill-fitting side plot, and some odd tonal shifts, direction and pacing remain energetic as the storyline unfolds and the inevitable final confrontations are set in motion. To Zlatnik’s credit, viewers are left guessing as to how the story might play out.

There are fleeting moments of satire along the way, although the moral blankness of voyeuristic reality TV is a fairly well mined theme. What’s missing is much in the way of appreciation of the predicament or the motivation of either the refugees (who are risking everything – again – in the hope of a better life) or of the Hunters (who are willing to use deadly force to stop them). Sadly, the film slides off the rails in the last twenty minutes, losing any sense of internal logic or believability. The final ‘chat show’ segment is simply excruciating to watch (and not in a good way), propelling the movie into the realms of implausible fantasy, with dialogue that recalls all of the suspect moral sophistication of Starship Troopers. 

A film set in a distant alien world can use metaphor to reflect on themes with a contemporary resonance to the human condition with a great deal of artistic freedom, from afar. But when a movie set in near-future Berlin extrapolates its story from one of the most contentious issues in present day Europe, and does so by imagining bloody street clashes in which citizens attack “non-citizens”, it is precisely its “closeness to reality” that compels its creators to exhibit a more self-aware sense of social responsibility. And against this measurement, Immigration Game comes up short.

Until everything goes bonkers in the finale, this is a serviceable, if sometimes gruesome, urban chase flick. The problem is this film’s pretensions to be something more than that. Ultimately, Immigration Game reveals itself to be nowhere near as insightful or subversive as it would like to think it is. The real-world news stories that the film appropriates as dramatic source material are incredibly potent and powerful. So much so that filmmakers who “play” with those issues without sufficient care, or who fail to consider how audiences might read their intentions, need to seriously rethink their game. 


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