Paul Is Dead. Depending on your age, most likely, the title of Henk Handloegten’s debut feature might suggest an entire landscape, maybe tickle a vague memory somewhere or pull up a complete blank.
The Paul in question is Paul McCartney and the phrase refers to the bizarre conspiracy theory suggesting that at some point in the Beatles’ career, McCartney died, forcing the Beatles to get in a lookalike McCartney in order to keep the band going. The fact that the doppelganger also had the original McCartney’s ability to knock out million-selling tunes is not something the conspiracy theorists ever explain, but then, in the way of these things, who needs facts when you’ve got hocus pocus? (Maybe the “real” Paul had a secret stash of already written songs – like the Live and Let Die Bond theme, for instance, a film that wasn’t even on the drawing board when “Paul” died. Fabulists gonna fabulate.)
The time is 1980 and the place West Germany, where cusping-puberty Tobias, his older brother and friends are all Beatles obsessives who not only know every fact, but every factoid about the Fab Four’s existence, and regularly quiz each other on the more arcane details. So when Tobias one day happens upon a White VW Beetle in his hometown, one with the registration LMW 281F, it’s only a matter of time before the pfennig drops. Of course! That’s the car that features on the cover of the Beatles Abbey Road album, the one on which Paul is bare foot (hence dead) walking across the zebra crossing, the one on which he’s out of step (hence dead) with his bandmates.
In voiceover/gumshoe style anticipating Rian Johnson’s Brick by five years, Tobias goes into junior detective mode, having first had the scales removed from his eyes by a record store owner who lays out the whole “Paul is dead” thesis and runs him through some of the proofs – signs and symbols on album covers, backwards voices on records, John Lennon apparently singing “I buried Paul” on the outro of Strawberry Fields Forever.
A thriller plays out, of sorts, though really Handloegten is giving us a coming-of-age story in disguise. Not even in that much of a disguise, to be honest. But he does it with a light touch that had me wondering how such a talented writer/director could not have had more of a high-profile career. It turns out that Handloegten is one of the triumvirate of creatives (along with Tom Tykwer and Achim von Borries, who turns up in a cameo here as “The one and only Billy Shears”) behind Babylon Berlin, one of the most satisfying TV shows of recent decades. I bet everyone at Netflix answers his calls.
Like Babylon Berlin, Paul Is Dead knows how to conjure a time and a place, but it’s also good on teenage lads, situating us inside the mindset of Tobias – girls becoming an interest but not so much that Tobias is diverted by whatever it is that his older brother Till is doing with his girlfriend Tessa – in a way that is reminiscent of The Wonder Years, or Stand by Me, or Spielberg with his lads-on-bicycles hat on. The almost insanely warm cinematography of Florian Hoffmeister amplifies the impression.
It’s a snug and cute film, brief too, at 75mins (not even that, excluding credits) and with entirely winning performances from the entire cast, particularly Sebastian Urzendowsky (who was then going by the surname Schmidtke) as the wide-eyed Tobias, most particularly when Tobias, alone in his room, is imagining himself as a successful rock star being interviewed by a famous DJ, switching brilliantly between louche artist and engaged interviewer as he asks and answers questions.
All this – mixtapes, first sex, obsessive fan worship, conspiracies, claims to specialness – and Beatles music on the soundtrack, enough so we know it’s them, not so much that massive rights payments had to be made. What an adroit, atmospheric and clever movie this is.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022