Berlinale 2024 Review: A Corrections Officer Lets Her Guard Down in Gustav Möller’s Riveting Drama “Sons”

It isn’t necessary to have seen Gustav Möller’s impressive debut “The Guilty” to find his second feature “Sons” fascinating, but there is an intriguing dichotomy between the two. After wringing every bit of tension from a police officer at a dispatch center who pieces together the whereabouts of a kidnapped woman from the calls he receives, the director and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen find themselves in another part of the criminal justice system with a prison guard (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who is burdened with knowing more than everyone else in the penitentiary where she works in a drama that is no less potent than Möller’s wildly popular thriller but far more contemplative.

“Sons” considers who really is incarcerated when Eva, the conflicted public servant, learns of a new inmate Mikkel (Sebastian Bull) being transferred to Center Zero, the block for the most notorious criminals that is adjacent to hers. Helping the low-level offenders under her watch with math and yoga, she curiously requests a transfer to the high security cell block after laying eyes on Mikkel to work under a supervisor (Dar Salim) more skeptical of her suitability for the job and with prisoners more prone to fits of violence. To say anything more would mildly spoil the film, so fair warning here, but although Eva doesn’t give away her reasons for taking on the more thankless position, the film’s title does to a certain degree as Mikkel was responsible for the death of her son while both were in prison and Eva sets about getting her vengeance by leveraging what authority she has.

With Möller’s craftsmanship, one suspects that premise in and of itself might’ve made a fine pulpy potboiler, but the director admirably is after something more in “Sons” when as much as Eva wants to punish Mikkel in the small, irritating ways she can – withholding cigarettes and throwing away his mail – before plotting more severe retribution, she starts to see what her own son would’ve looked like if he had survived and continued to grow up behind bars. Her manipulation of power is an indictment of carceral justice on its own, but the film envisions the now-volatile Mikkel as a product of his environment, brought in on a mild offense and increasingly more dangerous to himself and others shuttling between different cells and as the system is called into question in terms of what potential it has for its stated goals of rehabilitation, so to is whether Eva’s anger actually is towards Mikkel or herself when she recognizes her culpability in how her son was raised and if she’d actually try to rectify it if the opportunity presented itself.

As a narrative, Möller knows how to keep things moving at a gripping pace, but like “The Guilty” where he also worked with cinematographer Jasper Spanning, “Sons” is consistently engaging visually as the camera becomes an extension of Eva, not only tethered to her physically as she patrols the prison halls, but often flooded with evocative lighting to channel her mood. The director is particularly skilled at using off-screen space – when the film itself doesn’t leave the prison, the imagination can reel as it did in his previous film, but from scene to scene, the closeness to Eva yields the kind of tunnel vision that she has in terms of her own experience, revealing the blind spots she can’t see for herself. The ever-formidible Knudsen of “Borgen” and “The Duke of Burgundy” fame is expectedly strong as the wounded guard, but Bull steps up as a scene partner, convincingly enabling Eva to see beyond Mikkel as something other than her son’s killer. True justice may be hard to come by in the world that’s depicted here, but in arriving at a strikingly fair conclusion, “Sons” does so by its characters trapped in an impossible situation.

“Sons” will screen again at Berlinale on February 23rd at 9:30 am at Verti Music Hall and 1 pm at HKW 1 – Miriam Makeba Auditorium, February 24th at 7 pm at Verti Music Hall and February 25th at 9:45 pm at Verti Music Hall.

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