Auf Augenhöhe (“At Eye Level”) is a German film by Joachim Dolhopf and Evi Goldbrunner currently playing in theaters across the country, starring Jordan Prentice and Luis Vorbach. Michi (Vorbach) is an 10-year-old foster child living in a home. He’s at the age where put-downs and one-upmanship are conversation-starters both at breakfast and on the basketball court. Dissing your opponent’s family is standard fare, but it carries extra weight for him and his housemates, many of whom were neglected or abused by their parents. Michi was raised as a toddler by a single mother until her death. Since the identity of his father is unknown, he can and does make up stories about how cool his dad must be whenever he needs to swagger in front of his friends.
Early on in the film he discovers a letter at the bottom of a keepsake box addressed to his father, Tom Lambrecht, who lives not far away. Michi heads to his house and leaves a letter under his door, explaining who he is and inviting him to meet at the foster home. On his way out, a neighbor points him in the direction of Tom’s rowing team. Michi heads over and hears someone utter his father’s name. The man who answers to the name is curly-haired and 4 feet tall (1.24 meters). Michi runs away.
Previously unaware he ever had a child, Tom is shocked to discover his son’s letter and worries about the prospect of meeting him. He is fearful of how his son might react to his size. “And what if he’s short-statured, too?” he asks a friend. “He’ll blame me.”
“Well, it means he’ll already know all about it,” his friend shrugs.
Tom shows up at Michi’s foster home and in this moment Michi’s world of pre-teen posturing transforms into a nightmare right out of Lord of the Flies. He and his father are shoved, screamed at, mocked, grabbed and pelted with chips until neither of them can hide their tears. The scene is painful because no amount of Tom’s attempts at being the adult in the situation can protect either of them. After Tom leaves, the bullying remains and takes on more sadistic forms. A garden gnome hanging from a noose outside his window drives Michi to run away and show up again on Tom’s doorstep, insisting he live with him. Tom agrees, but their problems are far from over.
Michi blames Tom for ruining the life he had by entering it. Tom is riddled with guilt and endures his son standing 10 feet away from him in public. Kids from the foster home show up and spray-paint “Verräter” (“traitor”) on their apartment building.
It’s reminiscent of another German film, Young Törless (1966), which like Lord of the Flies sought to pinpoint the roots of the Nazis’ cruelty by examining bullying at a turn-of-the-century boarding school for boys. Auf Augenhöhe adds the emotional problems of young people failed by neglectful parents into the mix. But it doesn’t let non-orphans off the hook either.
Because an even more painful scene soon follows when Tom is at the gym with his rowing team. Two gawking men creep up behind him to snap a photo—a common humiliation for people with dwarfism today, as I’ve written before—but his teammates come to his defense. They are successful in getting an apology out of the perpetrators because there are only two of them. The moral of this film, Young Törless and Lord of Flies could well be that no good comes of allowing the mature to be outnumbered by the immature, no matter their age.
After the incident, Tom lashes out at his friends, accusing them of only defending him out of pity. This was the hardest scene for me to watch because I could understand both sides of it. No matter how self-confident you are, the knowledge that a good deal of the world can’t handle your Otherness feeds paranoia. In moments when people in power strike you down, that paranoia can rise up and reign supreme, making you doubt the open-mindedness of everyone around you. Yet to act on such paranoia is rarely helpful, and Tom later apologizes at the next rowing practice.
Hours later in the bar, his friends insist that they should apologize. “I’ve got to admit I always assumed things were easier for you than they actually were,” one of them says. “And yet if I’m really honest with myself, I am glad I don’t have to deal with the problems you do.”
“Thanks for your honesty,” Tom nods.
Michi is also granted such honesty from a few peers over time. And of course he and Tom gradually warm to one another as odd couples in film are wont to do. Auf Augenhöhe has been marketed as a family comedy, and for that reason I had feared a predictable schlockfest of sight gags, height puns and an overly simplistic sing-song that we’re all the same inside! But the film is more contemplative than that. It’s heavy on dialogue, largely avoids clichés, and the acting is excellent.
There aren’t even that many jokes. Scenes of Tom standing in a streetcar, nearly smothered in the crotches of other passengers is presented soberly, not for laughs or tears. A young viewer sitting next to me smirked at the image of Tom using a step-stool to look through a peephole, but the film presents the adaptations in his car and around his apartment so matter-of-factly that any air of novelty quickly fades away. The biggest play on height comes when Tom turns it around to his advantage. When he lets Michi drive donuts in an empty parking lot, a police car pulls up. Tom switches back into the driver’s seat and puts on Michi’s hat before the police officer opens the door and is surprised to find an adult at the wheel.
“Honestly, officer, that we dwarfs are so often mistaken for children is quite humiliating. I think I’m going to need another session with my therapist to get over this,” Tom deadpans.
The officer issues his sincerest apologies before walking away and leaving father and son to burst into giggles.
That Luis Vorbach and Jordan Prentice develop such a chemistry on screen is all the more impressive in light of the fact that the Canadian Prentice delivered all his lines in English, which were then (almost seamlessly) dubbed over in German. I don’t know what that says about the state of job opportunities for German actors with dwarfism today, but in this case, the result is a cast of characters who are completely believable. This is no small feat when we consider just how many triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity films take the easy route with angelic and diabolical caricatures we only ever see in our fantasies. And Prentice redeems himself as an actor after his role in In Bruges (2008) and all the failures of that film to avoid freak show humor.
Three-quarters through the story there is another plot twist that borders on soap-opera. I won’t say anything about it other than that foster children or social workers may want to contest its credibility. But it gets a point across, and it’s a good point to make.
Glancing at the six other families in the theater with me at the screening—all of their children roughly the same age as Michi, some of them visible ethnic minorities—I wondered what kind of film they had been expecting. Were they drawn by the subject matter? Or by the trailer that makes the film look a lot goofier than it is? No matter what they were hoping for, I’m glad they saw it.