The Unpolished (Die Unerzogenen) Review
The complex and somewhat contradictory place between humanism and the ugly reflections which can then follow is where Pia Marais' 2006 debut The Unpolished (Die Unerzogenen) wearily rests. It's an assured work that treats characters as people and their situations as evidence of the greyness of life. The audience for such a bitter pill will be narrow, but it's not an overly difficult film so much as it's one that can be hard to watch if you value sunny exteriors. Both the outside and inside of The Unpolished favor the rough rather than the smooth. Its English title, despite reservations from the director, seems to fit perfectly.
The film's protagonist is 14-year-old Stevie (Céci Chuh), someone in clear transition between child and young adult. Her parents' drug dealing has caused an understandable lack of stability in Stevie's upbringing. She's already had to move around the continent and been deprived of proper schooling. Things in the movie begin more or less with her father (Birol Ünel) returning to the family after a stint in jail and them living, along with some hangers-on, in a house in Germany that her mother (Pascale Schiller) has inherited. Stevie carries the burden of responsibility on her small shoulders, desiring boundaries when there are none. Those around her offer alcohol and drugs rather than discourage their use. She's not in school so it's initially difficult to make friends, but when a bunch of teenagers do come around Stevie feels the need to lie about her parents. Either embarrassed or ashamed, she invents an ambassadorship to Brazil for her father. The requisite teenage awkwardness, never more effective than in the scenes between Stevie and the much older friend of her parents Ingmar (Georg Friedrich), comes across as delicately as possible.
The way that things jump without warning or explanation into a different event can be chalked up to a editorial choice of the director's, but it also resembles how a child like Stevie would be only told little crumbs of information by her parents before being expected to act right away, without knowing the totality of the circumstances. The viewer is thrown into situations just as our heroine might be. Marais essentially tells the story from her perspective and maintains that distance from any sort of linear expectation. Things do occur in order but not without gaps. In a sense, it's frustrating to not be privy to what can seem like important parts of the narrative. Closer inspection, however, reveals that these slight fractures serve the nature of the piece. The plot is less essential than the characters' reactions, and those become the skeleton key of an uneasy experience.
The Unpolished ultimately flourishes as a nonjudgmental coming-of-age account set amid needless turmoil. If you can't get past the parental neglect on display then you probably won't be able to settle into its wavelength. Marais doesn't want you to condemn activity that can nonetheless seem almost indefensible. Maybe that's to her credit or maybe it's extremely naive. We're not to say; we're only to witness. I found Stevie's predicament to be disturbing enough that it affected my appreciation of the film a small bit. Still, there's no reason to think everyone will have the same hang-ups and my impression on the whole could be characterized as strongly positive. It scratches a certain itch in cinema that is too often ignored in favor of easy likability. The Unpolished aims not to be enjoyed but to be understood. It yearns for patience and it deserves as much.
Second Run brings this fairly recent picture (made in 2006 and first shown the following year) to DVD in the UK via a region-free, dual-layered disc in PAL format. Only some slight digital noise affects the progressive transfer. The film is presented in its proper and true 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen displays. The title is spine number 049 in Second Run's line.
There's some definite grain present here. It varies among shots but you can't miss such abundant graininess. That said, detail is never a problem and colors look relatively impressive. Keeping in mind that we're dealing with standard definition of a movie with a visual emphasis on grain, I found the presentation to be entirely within reason and actually quite good.
Audio is a German mono track that sounds clean and clear. Nothing in the way of distracting sounds or aural blemishes. The optional English subtitles are white in color and, as far as I could tell, absent any spelling mistakes.
An extra feature on the disc is a generous interview (16:06) with director Pia Marais. It's not a commentary certainly and she doesn't delve into a greater meaning of her film, but there are interesting asides about the casting of the young lead and how aspects do play an autobiographical role. We're also treated to a nice booklet inside the case that is 12 pages. It contains a vigorous lauding by Brad Stevens that is nothing if not persuasive. I didn't have such passionate feelings on the film but I do admire Stevens' willingness to attach himself that tightly to a contemporary and little-seen picture.