Nina Hoss plays a sinister horse trainer in Katrin Gebbe’s film "Pelikanblut." The eponymous animal is considered a symbol of sacrifice.
Wiebke (Nina Hoss) resorts to methods not found in any textbook Photo: DCM
Horses are flight animals. If they sense a potential danger, they actually want to run away standing on their hooves. To avoid this, riders and horse trainers have made it their business to build trust, calm down, and (literally) curb fear. It is particularly difficult to get police horses used to their potentially challenging environment – the confines of demonstrations, the sudden loud noises, the explosions, the smells. Not all of them manage to put their panic behind them – regularly, some mounts go berserk.
In Katrin Gebbe’s drama "Pelikanblut," horse trainer Wiebke (Nina Hoss) works with these same "problem animals": She is an expert on (animal) fear. At her farm, where she lives with her adopted daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo), she tries to regain the trust of her furry patients using various methods. She approaches them, observes, talks; and thus, in Monty Roberts’ horse whisperer manner, slowly reduces the distance.
"Pelican Blood – For the Love of My Daughter". Directed by Katrin Gebbe. With Nina Hoss, Katerina Lipovska et al. Bulgaria/Germany 2019, 121 min.
When Wiebke gets the chance to finally adopt a second girl, the little family is delighted. In an orphanage in Bulgaria, Wiebke meets five-year-old Raya (furiously played by Katerina Lipovska). With his blond curls and open nature, the child initially seems like an angel and seems to be settling in well on the farm.
But quickly his behavior changes – the angel becomes a violent, irascible, irrational being who scares Nicolina and especially Wiebke more and more. Raya flips out, threatens, screams, smears the children’s room with feces in an oppressive scene. Raya, as diagnosed by a child psychologist, reveals a trauma that seems too great to overcome – even for an expert like Wiebke.
A hot-tempered girl
But Wiebke, whose unconditional, almost unwieldy self-sufficiency is clearly laid out by Nina Hoss and who is used to "staying in the saddle" even in hopeless cases, resorts to methods not found in textbooks. And successively lets features of a completely different genre seep into the sensitive psychogram of a mother-daughter rapprochement: eerie traces of "female body horror.
"Even when the girl stands at Wiebke’s bedside for the first time at night, it’s about fear of death. And I approach this fear with genre elements," explains director Gebbe, whose debut film "Tore tanzt" already told a multi-layered, unexpectedly disturbing story of violence and martyrdom, in an interview.
Her two "Pelican Blood" protagonists, the child and the woman, are more similar than one might initially think: "Something happened to Wiebke, too, but Nina and I decided not to describe it further," Gebbe says. "It makes the character more exciting and ultimately bigger when the viewer can fill in spaces."
Towards mysticism and magic
The story revolves around female themes: "I wanted to do something about the ideal of motherhood and about how far empathy goes," says Gebbe. After consulting the doctor and receiving his diagnosis, Wiebke first seeks advice on the Internet – and finds an irritating method that supposedly makes up for early childhood mother-child bonding.
The rest of Wiebke’s life, the romantically interested police officer Benedict (Murathan Muslu), her work, even her older daughter suffer from her obsession. Eventually, the determined woman looks toward mysticism and magic.
Gebbe’s film, which could previously be perceived as a kind of spiritual brother to Nora Fingscheidt’s "Systemsprenger," thus turns deeper into an unusual, dark narrative path, with witches’ herbs growing on its edges. And which should definitely be read in a feminist way: "I always had very good friends," Gebbe says, "but in a crisis, the women came to tell me stories, to build me up, to give me strength. I thought there was something archaic about that."
The titular pelican was considered a symbol of sacrifice in Christian iconography – according to ancient myth, the mother pelican pecks her breast bloody to feed her young. Wiebke, too, will go far – to where psychology apparently no longer works. Gebbe’s story tells of spiritual or archaic forces, without breaking any esoteric lance, and entirely without proselytizing.
Her film could therefore find a divided echo: It boldly refuses to accept only one or the other solution, and in the end even leaves open which method has which consequences.
In the end also an emancipation story
Gebbe deliberately keeps her audience in suspense – some viewers will find this difficult to endure. In addition, the supporting characters, such as Benedict’s colleagues, who also often visit Wiebke’s farm, remain wooden to pale, their acting seems stilted. As if the staging of the main story had gnawed a little on the energy for the edges.
But the way "Pelikanblut" touches on psychology, spirituality and feminist horror at the same time; the way the film rearranges elements of a family constellation, the fairy tale "The Goose Girl" and, for instance, an early David Cronenberg film and transfers them into an emancipation story – because in the end the men in Wiebke’s haze can’t help, and the horses with male connotations also meet an unpleasant fate – that is already courageous and extraordinary.
Horses are considered transitional objects in female heteropuberty, supposedly filling a gap between childhood and the first boyfriend: Until you really get close to the strange male beings, really trust them and their bodies, you’re happy to let yourself be carried along by the friendly horse’s back for a while during the "most beautiful happiness on earth". Maybe that’s just kitchen-sink psychology, but the steady success of teen horse movies following the same pattern over and over again speaks to that.
"Pelican Blood" is as far removed from these films as a monster is from a rabbit. Thus, one should not necessarily encourage any horse girls in one’s circle of acquaintances to go in. Instead, take a couple of seasoned, crisis-tested adults with you: They’ll get their money’s worth.