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Drifter review (BFI Flare) - navigating sex and self-esteem in Berlin

Drifter's story of a young cis man navigating Berlin's gay club scene is one you might think you've heard before but it's not quite the story you expect.

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Our Verdict

Drifter slyly subverts your typical gay coming-of-age drama to create a hauntingly beautiful yet viscerally real exploration of masculinity and what it means to be a white cis gay man struggling to thrive in Berlin today.

Unsure of himself after a breakup, 22-year-old Moritz turns to sex and drugs as a means of escape, like so many before him. Cue a parade of party scenes that take us across every Berlin Kiez (neighbourhood) in search of meaning and escape from the existential loneliness that single life in a big city can bring.

So far, so cliched drama movie, but Drifter doesn’t end with an overdose or anything even remotely tragic like that. In fact, director and co-writer Hannes Hirsch actively avoids tropes like this to create something far more subtle and even poignant about the journey to find oneself. And that’s not easy to do well in a market crammed full of queer coming-of-age stories all fighting to tell that same story.

Drifter’s script, co-written by River Matzke, doesn’t want you to know its intentions, though, not at first, because what we’re presented with initially is something that’s far more in-your-face. Quite literally, too, because the very first scene opens with a close-up of an erect penis mid-handjob. The member in question belongs to Jonas, the boyfriend Moritz moved to Berlin for.

Starting with a sex scene so explicit is bold, to say the least, and that might lead you to think that there’s plenty more sausage to come, but Drifter isn’t that movie. In fact, nothing that follows is anywhere near this provocative.

And that’s why it’s been included here, not to mislead, but rather to subvert. With its focus on gay dating and clubbing in Berlin, Drifter could have easily just become a series of lustful, sexual encounters, and there would have been nothing wrong with that at all, but instead, Hirsch is more focused on the quieter moments, the moments where real growth happens.

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When Moritz first arrives in Berlin, he’s painfully naive to the ways of queer culture, and in particular, the varying notions of masculinity that thrive within that space. Insecurities and glimpses of some unknown past trauma hinder him initially, but it’s through the connections he makes that Moritz starts to open up and explore different ways of existing as a gay man in modern-day Berlin.

Early on, Moritz meets an affectionate older man named Noah, who quickly accepts him into his unconventional family setup. But this isn’t the right time to settle down, so Moritz moves on, and it’s at this point that he starts to work out and experiment with the same drugs he rejected back when he was with Jonas. Gradually, Moritz gives in to his repressed desires, and in doing so, he becomes more accepting of others as well.

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As the film progresses, Moritz tries out new fashions and new forms of masculinity alike, until even his ex barely recognises him. But this isn’t about following trends or trying to fit in. It’s the opposite, in fact. Thanks to the new connections he makes, Moritz learns to find joy in fluidity, avoiding the binaries he brought to this city in favour of something more true to his inner self.

Lorenz Hochhuth makes this journey seem effortless, imbuing Moritz with an aching sense of vulnerability no matter which stage of the film he’s in. There’s a quiet stillness to the character, which, in lesser hands, could have made him dull or hard to root for. But Hochhuth skillfully captures the nuance of Moritz’s evolution from scene to scene, changing just enough each time, no matter how much time has passed. The Moritz we’re left with at the end is very different to the one we started with, but it’s still recognisably him — just a more genuine version of himself now.

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This detailed attention to character work is matched in the script by everyone else Moritz meets in Berlin as well. Whether they’re dancing in a club or making out in a bed, everyone in the cast feels fully realised throughout, regardless of whether there’s any dialogue or not. Each scene feels purposeful in this respect, imbuing the narrative with a dynamic but still gentle thrust that’s anything but drifting.

Hirsch’s naturalistic camerawork enhances all this with a documentary-style tone that observes rather than intrudes. That’s key to the film’s preoccupation with body image and how physical insecurities are often tied up with very specific forms of queer masculinity. Even when Drifter doesn’t actively engage with shame in this way, it’s still present throughout in the ways that Moritz relates to his own body, whether that ends up being positive or negative.

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So yes, Drifter does include some banging club scenes, just as you might expect, and sex does of course, play a big role too, but the film — and Moritz himself — draw more strength from the vulnerable, quieter moments in between, including one bold time jump that says plenty with what it leaves out.

It’s fitting that BFI Flare chose Hirsch’s feature debut to close the festival this year because Drifter is the very definition of a film that will stay with you after the credits roll, the kind of film you’ll find yourself thinking about days after the festival has ended just as your mind starts to drift away towards something new.

If you want to know more of our BFI Flare opinions, check out our review of The Stroll. We’ve also got a guide to all the new movies coming in 2023, including Oppenheimer, Barbie, and Dune 2. Finally, we’ve got a list of the best movies for you to enjoy.