In a pharmaceutical company in an unnamed town in Germany, middle aged engineer Xhafer (Mišel Matičević), originally from Kosovo, begins to suspect that something is not right. After missing a series of department wide emails, a dead rat hanging from his gate and a sense of unspoken hostility that pervades his office, he becomes convinced that he is being subjected to a campaign of racism.
As Xhafer’s German wife Nora (Sandra Hüller) puts it however, maybe his colleagues just don’t like him as a person — she is unable, or unwilling, to see potential racism that lurks behind the slow insidiousness of his colleagues’ actions. Xhafer, who the film implies, has been living in Germany for many years, with German-born children and a steady, respectable job, can still be readily cast off as an outsider. As someone who is white passing, his belief that there is a racial undertone to his sudden isolation is seen as over the top or dramatic — including by Nora who casually mentions that she could believe it if he “looked foreign”.
Visar Morina’s direction creates an unease, tense atmosphere in the unnamed workplace — often shooting from behind as Xhafer walks down long, shadowy corridors which only adds to the sense that something or someone is constantly observing him. The high contrast of the dark places and the sudden burst of warm, golden light that stretches through the middle of the frame only serves to reinforce the unnerving nature of Exile. At times, it feels more akin to a horror film, as the slow and insidious gaslighting, microaggressions and outright hostility that Xhafer experiences begins to take effect and his life begins to fall apart. It is as if there is a ghostly presence that only he can see — not matter how much he points and shouts, it is him who comes under suspicion.
The destabilising aspect of Exile is pushed further through Benedikt Schiefer’s minimalist score: a combination of echoing notes and a slow, thudding beat, it’s appears suddenly throughout the film with little foreshadowing seemingly as and when it pleases. Innocuous moments and scenes are undercut by the score, questioning a supposedly harmless compliment, a round of applause, the sudden appearance of a colleague in the middle of the night.
Xhafer is not a character that exudes sympathy — complicating his own situation through rash actions and selfish behaviour that Matičević manages to combine with a need to understanding and empathy that creates a central protagonist who is both infuriatingly impulsive and increasingly desperate as his world begins to fall apart. He starts to question his own place in German society as well as the relationships that have, until now, held strong.
Exile does begin to lose its way during the final third of the film, as moments are stretched out a little too long, and the sheer repetitiveness of Xhafer’s day to day life does begin to weary — with the exception of several truly shocking moments that catch completely off guard.
Morina’s assured script and direction, along with a complex and contradictory performance by Matičević allows Exile to linger in the mind long after the credits — but it’s own need to reinforce this repetitive nature of Xhafer’s issue does bring the film down in it’s final moments.
Exile screened at Berlinale 2020 from February 24th-29th
by Rose Dymock
Rose is a budding film critic, who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an MRes in Film Studies. She’s currently living back home in the Black Country in the West Midlands, juggling working full time and trying to break into criticism. She loves thrillers, great female characters, Al Pacino, and multilingual cinema. She’s not entirely sure if she’s a millennial and she wants a Lord of the Rings tattoo. Find her on twitter @rosedymock or on her website https://rosefd.wordpress.com/