Amaro - The Bitter (Germany, 34 min)
Directed by: Fabian Döring
Written by: Fabian Döring; Adrian Hagenguth
When Victor's four-legged companion Amaro is on the verge of death, he has a morbid idea how to keep his buddy with him.
Review:Fabian Döring’s mid length drama Amaro- Das Bittere (The Bitter) is one of the most difficult kinds of films to watch; The kind that uses emotional investment to pull us in close enough to see something we would never otherwise see, to break our hearts, and worst of all, make us think. Over the course of 34 minutes, this is what Döring manages to do; by the end of Das Bittere, you are left with a harrowing, gut wrenching contemplation of human rituals and grief, and an undoubtedly bitter taste in your mouth.
The film is centered around Victor, a middle-aged professor and widower, and his dog, Amaro (whose name, it should be noted, is the Italian word for “bitter,” or a bitter tasting, after-dinner liqueur), who Victor had adopted with his wife during happier times. It opens with an acute vision of Victor’s quiet, isolated life; His cluttered, dingy apartment, his one-sided conversations with Amaro, their routine walks to his wife’s grave, where he maintains an array of fresh flowers. It is evident that death has drastically changed Victor, a shift his old friend and colleague Brandt indicates when he describes to a grad student the vibrant, courageous past of a man who was thrown in jail in defense of his friends, a far cry from the disheveled ball of nerves who stands before them, balking at Brandt’s invitation to meet for a beer.
When Amaro falls ill, Victor takes him to the clinic, initiating the film’s most pivotal and quintessentially German scene, during which an unshakably poised vet crisply informs Victor of Amaro’s inoperable tumor, his impending, intolerable agony and the necessity of euthanasia, and offers him a glass of water. In some meticulously crafted dialogue, Victor asks if he will be able to take Amaro home after euthanasia, and is informed that “for legal reasons,” he will not be granted access to his best friend’s body. “You can hire a professional pet mortician,” the vet suggests, or can “leave the animal with us. We’ll transfer the corpse to carcass disposal.” He is told that he should be relieved, after all, most people prefer not to deal with such unpleasant matters.
If it is not already evident, the central theme that colors this story is pain; Amaro’s physical pain, Victor’s emotional pain, along with the pain of practically every other character he comes into contact with. As Victor mourns his wife and the impending loss of his closest companion, his friend Brandt suffers with his son, who had his leg amputated after a devastating scooter accident. Victor’s seemingly cheery neighbor, Katja, suffers as she lives alone with her father, with whom she endures a volatile relationship. Both of these supporting characters try to cope with their suffering by seeking companionship in Victor, who, in his chronic grief, guilt, and fear of other’s suffering, continually fails to rise to the occasion. “You think you are the only one who has had to take a heavy blow?” Brandt jabs at him as he leans over his beer in a dimly lit pub, “I needed a friend back then, but you were not there for me,” to which, after a long silence, Victor can only muster the reply: “Amaro is sick.”
With its compelling characters and carefully inserted, insidious elements of foreshadowing placed throughout the film (Victor’s academic research on cannibal bural rituals in medieval Europe, sporadic shot inserts of a bloody knife on the bathroom floor, Amaro’s name) Döring manages to build the rising action towards a finale that some viewers might have uncomfortably anticipated as a possibility, but absolutely no one was ready for. It should be noted that Victor’s final act towards his dearest friend, while horrid, is in the story for reasons more purposeful than mere shock and awe. In a very real sense, the pivotal scene in which the vet insists on taking Amaro’s death out of Victor’s hands reflects a level of systematic detachment from death and suffering that has become commonplace in modern western culture. We avoid the discomfort and very biology of death and by transferring the preparation and burial of our deceased loved ones unto strangers, by never going near a corpse until it is made to look alive through professional cosmetics and chemical processing, or by having it burned, the remaining recognizable bones and fragments pulverized in a blender and returned to us in conveniently wrapped packaging. It is in this way that death in the modern world is rendered practically nonexistent. If not by choice, then by law. And it is through this lens constructed by Döring that Victor’s actions skirt any simple, moralistic interpretation.
At its highest point, Das Bittere creates a rare opportunity in our modern-day culture to discuss and reflect on death fully and candidly. In the wake of the film's shocking climax, an open space is left, in which our most hidden, unspeakable anxieties, reservations and desires surrounding our own mortalities are allowed to come to light. It also leaves us with an eerie notion that perhaps there is, in fact, a fate worse than death after all: to simply cease existing.