By their very nature, nightmares are convoluted and strange as well as terrifying, sometimes distorting aspects of your life or memories that are very much real. This is a sense that echoes throughout every fibre of the events seen in German feature, Der Nachtmahr (The Nightmare), directed by AKIZ – full name, Achim Bornhak.
After attending a strobing night-time pool party, 17-year-old Tina starts seeing a repulsive creature that no one else seems to be able to. It appears regularly in the house she lives with her parents, clumsy and often making a mess, not threatening as such but still somewhat horrifying. Her apparent visions lead to her being sent to a psychiatrist and the threat of effectively being sectioned begins to loom. But as she beings to engage with the creature more and more, she comes to realise that she feels what it feels, and learns not only to live with her nightmare but to make it a part of her and protect it.
Where Der Nachtmahr really becomes interesting is when other people (her parents, friends, authorities) begin to see the creature too. From then on, we never quite have a handle on what’s real and what’s not; any semblance of credence always just out of reach. It may or may not be a coincidence that the creature Tina sees resembles an animated version of a dead foetus shown to her at the film’s start, on the way to the first party. Her eyes become untrustworthy – if other people are able to see this creature too, we cannot fully be sure it’s the same as what she does, or even what it is. Possible explanations as to the source of her internal struggles include bulimia, teenage pregnancy and depression. In truth it could be any or all of these things. In his guiding of the story, AKIZ leaves ample room for interpretation and filling in the grey areas for yourself. While at first this seemed frustrating and unsubstantial, it ultimately allowed for a more nuanced narrative.
A mention must also be given to the presence of EDM-filled, pulsing raves. Awash with hedonistic youth culture, the parties don’t seem to serve the narrative directly; their occurrence almost stands apart from everything, as Tina does – she who is on the edge, isolated and medicated. She appears disconnected from the people around her, even at these raves which, ironically, are meant to be events that bring people together. In this sense, AKIZ’s attraction to the use of dance music in the course of these disturbing affairs acts as another channel through which to subtly draw on murky emotional states, as well as an injection of feckless youthful invigoration.
Although a number of messages can be inferred, a critical one in the dying moments of the film is that of self-acceptance. After a slow start, what we’re left with is a feature both fresh and immediate, and by working creatively on his own terms AKIZ produces a genuine expression of teenage troubles without the burden of condescension or an outdated perspective to mar it.
Der Nachtmahr screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2015