For such a serious and moving film, it’s funny that Backstory’s title is a pun. The piece, a gorgeously shot, fast-paced tour through the life of its protagonist from birth to death, is his “backstory” in a storytelling sense, highlighting the seminal moments in life that shaped him. Yet the term is doing double-duty, as it also (literally) explains the conceptual angle to the visuals—our protagonist, played by 8 actors of varying ages, is shot throughout only from the back.
It’s a variation on the first-person POV, and it’s devastatingly effective. Though Backstory is punctured by occasional wonder, and elevated by romance, on the whole it is a very dour film, as its subject experiences tragedies which he finds impossible to fully move on from, and which leave him empty and alienated from himself and his surroundings. We follow along for every step, and it’s quite incredible the empathy that director Joschka Laukeninks is able to summon within audiences despite largely denying us that most effective of empathetic tools—the human face.
Forgoing scenes in a conventional sense, the crew shot for 17 days over 1.5 years to capture a myriad of moments assembled into a seamless montage, creating a propulsive rhythm of progression as the years pile on. Deadpan narration guides us through the experiences and supports the visuals breathlessness—time keeps on piling on relentlessly, like the ticking of clock or the running sands of an hourglass. That said, it is cleverly constructed. While the film forgoes “chapters”, the pauses in the narration are well-timed to punctuate particular moments, allowing for us to settle on stellar images and soak in the emotion before racing off again.
And gosh, are the images stellar. Laukeninks first caught our eye in 2011 with his mass-romantic short Back to Solitude, the success of which launched a healthy commercial directing career. It feels like he brought all that experience to bear on Backstory, as it is incredibly lush to look at. Beautifully colored, with a diverse palette, and just the right amount of grain, you’ll want to watch it again immediately upon completion. It’s an incredible undertaking too, as massively complicated scenes like the burning of a house show up on screen for mere seconds. Laukeninks condenses a feature’s worth of setups and locations into 6min, but it pays off.
Still, your enjoyment of the film will depend on your ability to emotionally connect with the themes that Laukeninks is playing with. He wants no less than to distill the sublimity of life—the horror of unceasing time, and the beauty we find within it. Indeed the two are inexorably intertwined for the director, as it is only in contrast to the existential disinterest of the universe that we can truly value the moments and connections that we make. But holding on means not letting go, and the repercussions of which are poignantly dramatized by the film.
After a celebrated festival run, Backstory debuts today online. With his technical command honed by working as a professional, and possessing a dramatic flair for emotional storytelling, it’s unlikely we’ll see Laukeninks in the short form again anytime soon. Indeed, the Berlin-based director is currently working on 2 feature film scripts, and when he does make his feature debut, the world should take notice.