Starring-Maron Kroymann, Kostja Ullman
Reviewed August 9, 2017
Punish Me (sometimes titled Hounded) is a provocative 2005 German language film that pushes boundaries and titillates the viewer with its racy themes of masochism and pedophilia that will be way too much for your average viewer to marinate and digest. In fact, some may be completely turned off (rather than on) by this film. However, for the edgy thinker, the film is quite the find. Unique, extreme, and thoughtful, Punish Me is an experience to remember.
Shot entirely in black and white (rare for twenty-first century cinema) the film appears bleak and harsh, cold almost- and that is no doubt an intentional measure. The grizzled German landscape (the city is unidentified), gives the film an interesting and effective cinematography, transforming the black and white colors exceptionally well, whether the scene is set in daylight or night time. Something about the black and white decision is genius.
Elsa Seifert (Maren Kroymann) is a fifty year old probation officer. Married and raising a teenage daughter, she appears to live a stable, middle class existence. When one of her charges, Jan (Kostja Ullman), a sixteen year old, handsome young man, gives a pursuit of her, their relationship turns into an obsessive, lustful situation for both. Jan, you see, likes to be sexually beaten, and, at first, hesitant, Elsa slowly gets immersed in Jan’s world. When other characters begin to catch wind of the situation between Jan and Elsa, the film really becomes intense.
Astounding to me is the fact that Punish Me is directed by a woman, Angelina Maccarone. This both surprises, and impresses me. Thought-provoking is the female perspective in the film. Elsa is not an unhappy woman- though she nervously chain-smokes in almost every scene. She initially has no intention of being sucked into Jan’s eccentricities. As she awkwardly spanks him in their first steamy, sexual encounter, she is gentle, yet she quickly intensifies. Is she insecure with her middle-aged body? She certainly gets carried away by Jan’s charms, putting both career and husband at risk. Can she stop herself before it’s too late?
One wonders a few things- How would this film feel if it were directed by a man? Maccarone centers the perspective on Elsa more than she does Jan- or are we to assume that Jan, at sixteen, is merely experimenting with his sexuality and therefore not the more interesting character? This was my determination. Elsa has way more to lose than Jan does. We are not sure why Jan is so troubled to begin with or why he likes to be beaten- was he abused by his parents? sexually or otherwise? What deep rooted issues does Elsa have?
I imagined the complexities offered had the film gone something like this- Elsa is a male character. Would man on boy be too much? Is female on boy safer? One wonders, but if Elsa was a male and Jan a female, I do not think the film would be half as controversial or daring. It would seem more exploitative, or dare I say, conventional. Instead, Maccarone, turns the film into a psychoanalytical feast as we wonder what makes both Elsa and Jan tick and why they enjoy the discipline scene? Perhaps there is not clearly defined answer.
The supporting characters are not explored very well, other than a fellow troubled girl that Jan beds, commenting that she is too fat (she is not) or Elsa’s husband being revealed to have once had an affair with another woman pronouncing “it was only sex not love”. From this, one draws the conclusion that Elsa and her husband will reunite and resume their middle class life together, but what will become of Jan?
Thanks to effortless direction and good choices by Maccarone, she makes Punish Me an examine-worthy look at sexuality, desire, and emotions. Many will loathe the film or not bother to give it the time of day based on the subject matter, but the film is a treat for the creative cinematic lover and lovers of analysis.