Theresa von Eltz’s 4 Kings is a clinical yet poignant Christmas Eve viewing alternative to the usual festive fare. A more than capable feature debut from the up and coming German director, 4 Kings is a drama that unstuffs the stockings, sends the extended family home and drops us in an adolescent psychiatric emergency ward during Christmas. Our titular kings and company for the weekend are Lara (Jella Haase), an outspoken rebel with a history of drug abuse; Fedja (Moritz Leu), a victim of intense school bullying; Timo (Jannis Niewöhner), a violent son who attacked his family and travelled to be here with us (from the secure ward) and Alex (Paula Beer), a quiet worrier with mysterious visible injuries who has just arrived at the facility. Young psychiatrist Dr Wolff (Clemens Schick) joins us and the teenagers, providing a scrumptious feast of acceptance and general nobility. Let’s eat!
Of course von Eltz has other ideas. Family members visit the four patients but leave as cold as the ever-present snow; snow that, rather than function as a backdrop to a warm interior world, provides a sharp, fresh relief from the pain inside the ward. Instead of drawing the teens together from the start, Dr Wolff’s judgement nearly kills one of them. Everyone is on their own, and this is 4 Kings at its strongest. Whichever character the camera decides to ghost through the corridors, von Eltz pulls the viewer inside them – Lara with her blasé stride, Timo and his hurricane temper and Fedja, approaching every bend of the hallway as if Timo’s fist is on the other side.
All four leads deliver excellent performances in their depiction of trauma, but there’s just not enough gravy to go around. The film’s title is addressed in a conversation between Lara and a much younger child of the ward. As the children transform pipe-cleaners and cotton wool into a nativity scene, a young boy announces he is making the fourth of the three known magi, who Lara names Alphonse – the bringer of chocolate and all things naughty. We assume the ward’s fourth king is Timo: while the other three characters bought something of value to the group, Timo’s overwhelmingly negative initial contribution establishes him as an outlier. But this renegade ‘fourth king’ story element serves to not only separate him from Dr Wolff but the other teenagers when the film demands the teenagers form a coalition of the damaged. In a film structure where character development real estate is so precious, the construction of this fourth king concept seems unnecessary when two of the main characters could be amalgamated into one, quiet loner. Sure, the teens wouldn’t be able to separate into their contrived semi-romantic couples, but that extra allocation of narrative attention would elevate these characters from convincing to real. As a consequence the characters are poorly rendered, including Dr Wolff.
4 Kings is still gripping though. Dr Wolff’s task for the patients is to ask each other what they miss about Christmas and this is like pulling teeth. As the teens slowly bond under his guidance, a Christmas miracle seems likely. This all comes crashing down after a particularly liberal psychiatric decision made by Wolff causes a lot of his work to unravel in a strangely unsatisfying way. Story elements are hurriedly introduced toward the end of the film and the viewer is left empty, unwrapped. The lack of resolution could be seen as deliberate – reflecting the sad realities of psychological institutions – but starkly contrasts with the jollier indie-film moments throughout, especially the teens’ video logs.
This is not to say 4 Kings is a failure, far from it. It just seems as if punches were pulled and several missed their mark. A film in the medical institution genre simply needs more to differentiate it from others in its field. That being said the direction and performances within the film make 4 Kings a tasty Christmas cut, if a little fatty.
Check out 4 Kings at the German Film Festival at Como, Kino and Westgarth theatres starting on the 15th of November.