With Rival, director Marcus Lenz brings the topic of immigration back into global discourse. The United States often monopolizes discussion on the issue, causing the mainstream media to ignore other nations with stricter citizenship laws. One such country is Germany, where moving costs are in the thousands, and you must satisfy multiple criteria to be considered a permanent resident. For someone too poor to move legally, one option is working for a wealthy family who stands to benefit from safeguarding immigration status. The potential drawback is employee exploitation, which is what young Roman (Yelizar Nazarkeno) uncovers when he’s forced to relocate to the Deutschland following his grandmother’s passing.
The nine-year-old Ukrainian boy at first looks forward to reuniting with his mom Oksana (Maria Bruni). She was a hospice nurse for an elderly woman and is now expected to fall into a courtship with her widower, Gert Schwarz (Udo Samel). Upon learning this news, Roman is understandably repulsed. Even with little knowledge of social and marital dynamics, the child senses how deeply troubling this new relationship is. Continued residency is contingent on sexual and romantic reciprocity. Even though Oksana’s minuscule earnings are hidden away for future escape, this doesn’t assuage Roman’s concerns. It’s not about preferring one country to live in over the other, it’s about freedom of violation, and right now, Gert is the ultimate intruder in their lives.
Lenz and writing collaborator Lars Hubrich unfurl Roman’s immigration saga as confinement horror. Shot almost entirely through the eyes of Roman, audiences viscerally experience his claustrophobia. Roman is never allowed to leave and spends most of the film in tight quarters, often locked in a room or barred from viewing the outdoors. His new home is a prison he had no part in selecting, devoid of the safety and comfort all children should be guaranteed. Thankfully, there is never any blame placed on Oksana — while Roman resents his predicament, he adores his mom and doesn’t concentrate his bitterness on her.
Lenz hints at impending doom, with Genz exuding creepy vibes whenever present. While the narrative never sinks into cruel depravity, Roman’s torture is all too real. He may have left behind a village offering little opportunity or upward momentum, but at least enjoying childhood didn’t come with restrictions. Unfortunately, Rival undermines its title by forcing sympathy towards Genz midway through. At a certain point, Roman has no other choice but to lean on his familiarity. The script throws ordeal after ordeal in Roman’s direction to belabor a point that doesn’t need convincing. Pretty soon, Roman can no longer tell the difference between a stranger and a mortal enemy.
Offering no resolution, Roman’s fate is left to the winds of uncertainty. The plot itself isn’t expansive enough to justify a feature-length running time, resulting in a narrative that prematurely exhausts its dramatic fuel. Instability is normal for those in dire immigration circumstances, but Lenz mistakenly believes he’s doing a service by presenting indentured servitude as preferable to police intervention. When it comes to a child’s wellbeing, it’s up to a country’s government to ensure their safety during the legal transition process. Ripping them apart from their guardian or parent should never be an option, and tragically it’s become an American reality. Whether or not it’s a German one is never investigated, as Rival is more concerned with inducing terror than fighting it.