On August 24, 1992 the German city of Rostock was slammed by a wave of xenophobic riots which culminated in the burning of a residential building housing over 120 Vietnamese immigrants. Known as “The Night of Fire,” it was a defining moment in post-reunification German history. 23 years later, Burhan Qurbani reconstructs the events of that terrible night with his film We Are Young. We Are Strong. As an American who had never heard of this event before, I had a difficult time following the film. But that was due in no small part to my cultural ignorance. But I suspect that even if somebody who actually participated in the riots watched the film, they also would be confused by Qurbani’s bizarre plotting and direction.
“Young” follows three characters: Lien (Trang Le Hong), a resident of the doomed building torn between her Vietnamese heritage and her desire to assimilate into Germany society; Martin (Devid Striesow), a well-meaning local politician whose attempts to prevent the violence prove impotent; and Stefan (Jonas Nay), Martin’s bored, disillusioned son who joins in the rioting along with his neo-Nazi friends. On the surface, this is an ingenious idea, allowing Qurbani to examine the violence from the perspectives of the Victim, the Bystander, and the Assailant. But in practice Qurbani devotes about half of the runtime to Stefan, a third to Lien, and a piddling sixth to Martin. As such, Stefan is overexposed, Lien is underdeveloped, and Martin is proven completely superfluous. Even worse, Stefan is easily the most uninteresting character in the film. He has no real motivation for his actions other than a vague sexual attraction to one of his friends an inexplicable loyalty to the rest. Truth be told, Qurbani spends more time exploring and explaining the backgrounds and motivations of Stefan’s assorted compatriots than Stefan himself. Stefan is a cypher, much like the rest of the film. “Young” doesn’t illuminate “The Night of Fire.” If anything, it obfuscates it.