Review: It's A Berlin Brothel Romance in 'Bliss'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 5, 2022

The original German title of Henrika Kull's lesbian drama "Bliss" has a sharper, but no less ironic, edge; "Glück" means both "luck" and "happiness." In the case of Sascha (Katharina Behrens), a 40-ish sex worker at a Berlin brothel, it would seem that both are intermittent.

Hailing from Brandenburg, where she's got an ex and a young son she visits on occasion, Sascha seems very much at home in Germany' bustling capital city. She finds comfort in her colleagues, a group of cheerful young women who hang out in a green room that's part break area, part dressing room, and part industrial laundry. As the others — mostly younger — gather to giggle over the online reviews their johns have left them, Sascha seems more or less content, even if the job itself seems not to excite her at all. The sex — what we glimpse of it — is mechanical, routine, and disconnected. When a young guy asks if he can have her number, Sascha simply, flatly says, "No." And that's on a good day. When she's feeling out of sorts, Sascha is capable of taking on a dominatrix style that seems intimidating, if not a little dangerous.

Then Maria (Adam Hoya) enters the picture. Fresh, cheerful, dewy as a 23-year-old would be, Maria is from Italy, where her widowed father still lives — a man we never meet, but who exerts a constant pull over Maria, who leaves him teasing voice messages full of joking little stories. "We're expecting twins," she tells him in one message. "I'm on holiday in Greece." "I'm going to buy all the buildings in Berlin... and then give them away." It's unclear if Maria's father has any idea what she's doing for work (though it's not a secret to Sascha's old friends back in Brandenburg). Indeed, much of her background and life remains murky. What we see is Maria's lack of illusion. A poet, she writes down verse that cuts to the quick when it comes to matters of sexuality and gender.

Her poetic voice is only amplified by the fact that she doesn't speak much German, so when she and Sascha begin to hang out — and then become lovers — they speak in English. Fitting one another well, the two seem almost palpably relieved once they make a love connection. That relief is soon challenged, though, when Sascha's insecurities and jealousy begin to emerge — sharpened by a visit back to Brandenburg, where, after an impulsively passionate kiss in front of her ex and various others, Sascha outs them as lovers, only for Maria to carry on chatting and dancing, as though nothing had happened.

Maria's not callous. She's not weighed down by fear, regret, and the rest of the baggage that someone a couple decades older than her might carry. She has also, one senses, not quite sorted herself out yet. Working in a brothel is a good way for her to make money — that much is underscored by snippets of conversation we overhear as the house's sex workers talk about the low-paying retail work they're determined never to go back to — but it just might be that this is a proving ground for Maria, a place of strange possibilities, whereas for Sascha it might amount to the best among diminished options.

The film doesn't shy away from the old trope about sex workers becoming jaded and seeking to restart their capacity for love. If anything, it approaches that cliché with fresh curiosity, renewing and reinvigorating the question from a pair of intriguingly potent and honest angles. The drama here comes from the question of whether these two souls — one older than her years, the other weary before her time — will find a way to meet, and stick, in the middle.

"Bliss" plays in theaters starting Aug. 5 and will be available On Demand and on DVD Aug. 16

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.