Sex, death and family secrets drive this emotionally charged Eurodrama.
A coming-of-age saga crossed with a coming-out story, Jonathan is a visually striking debut from the Polish-German writer-director Piotr Lewandowski. It also reverses the generational conflict that drives more traditional gay-themed plotlines, a neat twist which does not fully excuse a few lurches into overcooked melodrama. Even so, Lewandowski has made an impressively mature first feature which will earn plenty more festival invitations following its Berlinale premiere last month, with obvious but not exclusive appeal to fests with dedicated LGBT programs. Set for release in German theaters in May, it could also crossover to niche audiences in other territories.
Baby-faced blond beauty Jannis Niewohner stars as Jonathan, an emotionally volatile young man living on a remote farm in rural Germany, where he cares for his sick father Burghard (Downfall veteran Andre Hennicke). With this mother long dead, and his father dying of cancer, this 24-year-old only child is desperate to unlock a family closet full of secrets and lies before they are buried forever. Distracted by sizzling sexual chemistry with his father’s young nurse Anka (Julia Koschitz), Jonathan only grasps the truth long after most movie viewers will have figured it out: Burghard is gay, but has kept his sexuality hidden from his son for decades.
Before he switches focus midway through from a son’s rites-of-passage story to a father’s last-rites story, Lewandowski initially tries to wrong-foot us with hints that Jonathan himself may be gay. He certainly exploits Niewohner’s chiseled torso and killer cheekbones for maximum homoerotic hotness, never missing a chance to have him pull off his tight T-shirt, go skinny-dipping in sun-dappled woodland glades or have al fresco sex on the back of a pick-up truck. Jonathan is almost certainly the most soft-porn movie ever made about terminal cancer.
Set in an overtly contemporary but oddly timeless version of rural Germany,the pic has a fairy-tale simplicity in places. The naive young hero’s angry tantrum on finally discovering his father’s sexuality certainly feels a little too engineered, more dramatically convenient than emotionally true. While Lewandowski’s script leans too heavily on implausible sulks and communication breakdowns, he is clearly deploying glossy soap tactics to sex up what might otherwise have been a relentlessly bleak viewing experience.
Jonathan is a little overlong and slackly paced, eventually succumbing to the sentimental conventions that it initially seems keen to subvert. All the same, this is an emotionally charged and visually sumptuous debut. Jeremy Rouse’s cinematography is jumpy and restless but rich in poetic flourishes, from slow-motion shots of forest rainstorms to close-ups of butterflies dancing through shafts of heavenly sunlight. A harrowing sex scene on a hospital death bed demonstrates that Lewandowski can handle raw humanity as well as pastoral splendor.