In “Familiar,” Berlinale Golden Bear-winning director Călin Peter Netzer follows Dragoş Binder, a film director, as he delves into the murky secrets of his family, and tries to exorcise the trauma of his childhood by making a film about it. Beta Cinema is handling world sales for the film, which has its world premiere this month at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia.
In the film, Dragoş is trying to understand how his family were able to leave Romania in the early 80s, during the most oppressive period of Nicolae Ceausescu’s rule. Dragoş also seeks to discover the truth of the breakdown in the marriage between his father, Emil, and mother, Valentina, and the true nature of Valentina’s relationship with swimming instructor Harald Stern, a suspected informant for the secret police, the Securitate.
Emanuel Pârvu, who appeared in Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes award winner “Graduation,” plays Dragoş, Iulia Lumânare, who was in Netzer’s Berlin competition title “Ana, My Love,” plays Ilinca, Adrian Titieni, who was in Netzer’s Berlinale winner “Child’s Pose,” is Emil, and Ana Ciontea, who was in Radu Jude’s Berlinale winner “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” is Valeria.
As his investigation progresses, Dragoş draws closer to his former girlfriend, Ilinca, who is working with him on the project, but his relationship with his fiancée, Alina, deteriorates. The film plays like a spy thriller with the discovery of secret files on the family, covert surveillance of a suspect, and the heated delivery of accusations and denunciations.
“The film is about identity,” Netzer tells Variety. It was in 2020, during the pandemic, that he decided to make the film and he acknowledges that he – like many others – “had time to think about [his identity] and reflect on it.”
The story is partly inspired by the circumstances of Netzer’s own family’s emigration from Romania to West Germany in the early 1980s. His father left first in 1981, and Netzer and his mother followed two years later. “It’s still a mystery to me, how they let us go,” he says. Their departures were part of an agreement from the West German and Romanian governments to allow ethnic Germans to leave Romania.
Netzer acknowledges the huge differences that existed in the 1980s between the Communist Eastern Europe and the capitalist Western Europe. Coming to Stuttgart, West Germany, was a “huge shock” for him, he says, and he was treated like an “Ausländer,” a foreigner. “I heard many voices telling me: ‘Go back to your country,’” he says.
He says although his parents were doctors, so relatively well off, they still have this “Ausländer complex.” As a child, Netzer went by the name Peter, a German name, not Călin, a Romanian name. But even with a German name and flawless German, without an accent, he was still treated like a foreigner. “I couldn’t erase anything,” he says. “The Germans gave you the feeling that you are okay, but you’re a little bit under them.”
Even back in Romania he wasn’t fully accepted. “I was a foreigner in Germany, and German in Romania,” he says.
Looking back at the move from Romania to Germany, he is ambivalent, as Romania was his home, but he got to be reunited with his father in Germany, and experience the freedom of a democratic country. “It is about mixed feelings. If you ask me now, if they did the right thing or not, it’s somewhere between the two, because I won something, and I lost something. I don’t know which is more important.”
The film also deals with Dragoş’ relationship with his mother, which echoes Netzer’s own “maternal complex.” “The mother in the film is abusing, manipulating everybody.” This infuriates Dragoş, who lashes out against those who love him. However, Netzer lauds the fact Valentina is “open” about her actions and motivation.
There is a sense that the secrecy and double speak that was the norm in Communist Romania lives on within the characters, even Dragoş, in later life. Netzer concurs: “Yes, [they are] keeping their secrets, or, while they are saying one thing, they are thinking something else. So, you never know what the truth is. Also, I think the characters have a problem with what they remember, what they want to remember.”
“Familiar” is produced by Parada Film. The co-producers are Gaïjin, Cinéma Defacto and Volos Films.