In this insightful immigration drama, what surprises Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) about the West Berlin emergency camp where she takes shelter in 1978 is how much it resembles the East Germany she recently fled. The clinical examination Nelly is required to pass upon arrival (complete with lice check) is no less humiliating than the “routine” strip search she endured before being allowed to pass through the Berlin Wall.
The incessant questioning by camp-based security services about the Russian-born father of her son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) reminds her of the Stasi inquiries following her boyfriend’s reported death. A naive Nelly doesn’t always tell immigration officials what they want to hear, and her adjustment is rocky and painful, her euphoria tempered with regret and displacement leading to paranoia. Screenwriter Heide Schwochow adapted West from Julia Franck’s 2003 novel Lagerfeuer, but she knows the ambivalence of East German refugees firsthand.
Heide and her son, director Christian Schwochow, emigrated in 1989, and they capture the feeling of surmounting a major hurdle only to face unrelenting bureaucracy and social stigmatization. Schwochow’s intimate, handheld camerawork often feels like surveillance, which transforms mundane events into the menacing moments of a psychological thriller.
Is Nelly’s ever-present neighbor Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer) a concerned outcast or a Stasi informant? How trustworthy is smitten American security agent John Bird (Jacky Ido) when he reveals classified information? Nelly’s fresh start doesn’t come easily, and West follows her through the difficult process of choosing what to take with her and what to leave behind.