For long stretches of Subject 101, our protagonist — identified in the end credits only as “101” (Cem Ali Gültekin) — has no idea what’s going on. He finds himself in ghastly scenes of violence and carnage, sometimes with himself holding the gun. He seems to wake up from them, only to discover he’s in some other cruel unreality. A scar on his shoulder comes and goes. A tattoo on his arm changes shape. He’s lost any sense of time, of self, of control.
And for much of that time, we’re as clueless as he is. What’s happened to him isn’t entirely a mystery; writer-director Tom Bewilogua plants clues about a Manchurian Candidate-esque mind control scenario before we have so much as a chance to ask. But we’re as uncertain as he is about what’s real and what’s not, about what he’s really being used for and why. It’s a profoundly disorienting experience that proves difficult to shake, even if — or especially because — Subject 101 offers so little clarity by its end.
Though the central premise of Subject 101 is a dystopian bit of science fiction (as the film itself points out through a background news report about the future of microchip technology), it’s one planted firmly in the real world — specifically, Hamburg 2019. A Syrian refugee in search of housing and employment enrolls in a corporate program co-sponsored by the German government, and at first it seems to be just what he needs. The apartment he’s given is small and shabby — and, in a disturbing omen, stained with blood from a previous tenant — and the jobs he’s assigned unexciting. But he’s settling in, making the space his own, learning German in his free time and slowly warming up to his coworkers.
Then he’s shot during a shady security gig, and a menacing figure (Guido Föhrweisser) in a cop car — the license plate to which ends in “666,” because Subject 101 has no use for subtlety — finds him as he passes out. Eventually, our protagonist wakes with a beard he didn’t have when he passed out, and an incision on his shoulder he can’t explain. And then the real nightmare begins.
Bewilogua throws everything he has into making us feel unmoored. Scenes are lit in lurid shades of green and red (the colors of Syria’s flag, surely not by coincidence), and surrounded by shadows so velvety-black they resemble voids. The camera (Alex Beier served as director of photography) tilts at odd angles as it snakes down hallways that have no business being where they are. Extreme wide shots and surveillance cameras induce a sense of paranoia, while extreme close-ups render faces unrecognizable. Subject 101 sometimes aims for a straightforward sort of horror, with bone-crunching sound effects and visions of flesh so mangled it resembles hamburger meat. But it makes a bigger impact with the eeriness of a half-eaten apple in a pool of blood, or a child’s smiley-face balloon floating obliviously in a room.
Whatever has happened to the character has rendered him voiceless, and since he’s the only one onscreen for much of the movie, Subject 101 leans heavily on Gültekin’s expressive face. His big eyes grow bigger and bulgier with desperation or bewilderment, or sink with sorrow, or glaze over with a chilling blankness. He’s a character who has our sympathy simply because it’s clear he’s been forced into a terrifying situation, but it’s Gültekin’s committed performance that keep us firmly planted in his headspace as he’s jerked from one hell to another.
In the midst of that fogginess, other voices cut through by way of the media. Of particular note are the frequent non-updates about the fruitless search for a suspected terrorist and Syrian refugee (Youssef Maghrebi) who’s recently gone missing after making seemingly bizarre claims about mind control. But there are other recurring motifs, too, like the footage of wars past and present frequently playing on the protagonist’s TV when he comes to, or the serenely delivered warnings of the “chaos and disorientation” that could accompany an economic recession or, God forbid, a pandemic. (Here’s where I remind you the movie is set in 2019.) They make for an unsettling stew of anxiety and dread sprinkled with unconvincing bits of optimism, which is to say they amount to a media diet like the one a lot of us consume every day.
But while Subject 101 is skilled at provoking uncomfortable emotions or raising touchy issues, it’s not quite as good at figuring out what it wants to do with them once it’s called them all up. By halfway through the 86-minute run time, I started to wonder if the whole rest of the movie was going to be a protracted series of nasty rug pulls with no clear end in sight; thankfully, a temporary focus shift to a more clear-headed character (Guntbert Warns) starts to kick the plot back into gear for the third act. Even so, the film ends more as a jumble of ideas and feelings than a single coherent narrative or message. Those who prefer their thrillers to explain away all their awkward edges might find themselves particularly exasperated.
Though maybe that, too, is the point. Subject 101 isn’t putting forth a new diagnosis for society’s ills or suggesting a cure, and it doesn’t claim to know where any of this is headed. Instead, it serves as a funhouse mirror reflection of something many of us have already felt in the air — a certain feeling of profound distrust and despair, of confusion bordering on hopelessness. It won’t bring anyone any comfort, and it’s guaranteed to frustrate anyone in search of concrete answers. But for a certain kind of mindset, it might provide a bit of validation.