Early on in Hidden Reserves, the extravagant Mrs. Hoffmansthal casually tells Vincent Baumann, a death insurance agent in the process of courting her for business, “I don’t want to think about dying right now.” Those of us watching don’t get the same luxury: Hidden Reserves is obsessed with death, or the right to die, in particular. In this blue and grey-toned, dystopian, neo-noir sci-fi setting, debtors are forced into permanent vegetative states – their vital signs manipulated – until they can be persuaded to sign death policies. In response, an underground resistance springs to action.
It is through the resistance that we are led to Lisa Sokulowa, a mysterious and sultry character who leads an underground cell. We also get to know Lisa through her father, Wladimir, who Vincent must persuade to sign a death policy in order to secure a highly sought-after promotion. In the event of failure, Vincent is threatened with demotion – a fate recently enacted on his coworker Dietrich, who commits suicide shortly after. But Wladimir, Vincent’s final obstacle in a ruthless corporate hierarchy, is no willing participant in the games Vincent tries to play. One of his tricks is to use Lisa as a kind of bait, leveraging her well-being in an attempt to blackmail Wladimir, evoke his soft side. To Vincent’s dismay, there is no soft side to be found here.
Nor is there a soft side to the society which unfolds before us: frighteningly bleak is the environment we see. The action unfolds largely at night. During the film’s few daytime scenes, there is no sunlight, no indication of organic life apart from the extensive garden Wladimir tends. “They have an unquenchable thirst,” he muses of his plants. Wladimir is quickly established as a vocal, if not solitary, moral compass in the film, proclaiming to his radical daughter that “one cannot behave healthy in a sick environment.”
While Vincent’s tired sales pitch bores Wladimir, we are shown possibly the most insidious qualities of Hidden Reserves’ universe: namely, the existence of so-called ‘visionaries,’ subjects that are used as vessels for the (unwilling) extraction of unconscious or subconscious knowledge. Vincent shows Wladimir what this looks like through a projection on the wall: the subject’s eyes dart and blink frantically, and his body convulses. We learn that women can be used as surrogate mothers in a vegetative state. The body is a site of constant, violent exploitation. Such violence seems to be the singular core element of social norms and economic production. It’s particularly corrupt and deceptive because we know these procedures – emergency resuscitation and life-preserving measures – as, relatively speaking, ‘good’ things, or at least designed to do something good. Perhaps the manipulation of the good to serve the bad is the crux of compelling sci-fi. In this case, it works pretty well.
“Mental data” is the prize which loyal bureaucrats like Vincent, and his calculating supervisor Diana Dorn, endlessly seek. The brain is an object of manipulation, a mere storage facility of information that can be invariably “tapped and decoded.” Perhaps not surprisingly, this world is also weirdly devoid of energy and people. On highways, Vincent is repeatedly the only car in sight. Not a single child appears in the film; at one point, Vincent muses on the necessity of children to propagate society, but their ultimate pointlessness on any other level. Emotion seems to have been discarded, or otherwise lost, in this cruel place.
As a leading man, Clemens Schick as Vincent Baumann borders on transfixing with his angular features, piercing stares, borderline sociopathy and that slight twitch in his left eye that appears when he starts to get really stressed out, about a third of the way through the film. You really don’t want to like him, if only because his opposite, the still-morally-questionable but definitively on-the-right-side-of-things leading lady, Lisa, played by Lena Lauzemis, is all sex, power, and cunning. (Lena’s sensuous voice also appears in several original songs.) Though Vincent possesses similar qualities he clearly uses them for the wrong reasons: to advance an oppressive society that thrives on corporate abuse. But with that stare, he manages, bit by reluctant bit, to pierce through our disdain for him – not with charm, but with determination, for he is an intensely, obsessively determined man. Inevitably the immense pressure of corporate hierarchy breaks him down to a point of serious self-reevaluation. Lisa plays a part in that introspective process, too.
Vincent’s transformation is perhaps meant to drive the film’s conflict, but this is ultimately an uninteresting, even expected, turn of events. Lisa’s personal and political conflicts are at the heart of the film’s motivations, its raison d’être. Her story leads us to a finale that has just the right amount of simplicity and tragedy, imparting a cogent, biting focus to the film’s thematic foundations. Though it left me feeling drained, I was also convinced that Vincent’s narrative was fulfilled, and that a certain cinematic gratification had been granted.
dir. Valentin Hitz
Part of the Boston Underground Film Festival
Screens Sunday, 3/26 @ Brattle Theatre, 4:00 PM