When Wiebke (Nina Hoss) adopts her second child, 5-year-old Raya (Katerina Lipovska), her world is upturned by the horrific manifestation of the girl’s trauma. The sophomore feature from German Writer/Director Katrin Gebbe (Nothing Bad Can Happen, 2013), PELICAN BLOOD explores the horror of motherhood and also childhood, asking questions about responsibility, sacrifice, love and compassion.
The film’s title is explained when Wiebke arrives at the orphanage to meet Raya, where an illustration prompts the narration of the story of the pelican that wounds herself with her beak so her blood would feed her chicks. This legend is grounded in Catholic symbolism, adopted as early as the second century AD as a representation of Christ’s sacrifice and redemption. In this version, the young chicks attack the pelican which strikes back and so kills them. After three days, she pierces her breast so her blood falls on their bodies and revives them, perhaps in exchange for her own life. This story foreshadows the devotion Wiebke will demonstrate throughout PELICAN BLOOD, a mother who will do anything for her child, no matter how dangerous it might be.
Wiebke is a single mother who lives in the countryside where she is a horse trainer working with the police. She and her eldest daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo) are excited to welcome an addition to their family. While some acting out is expected as Raya adjusts to her new life, her naughtiness quickly escalates to actual violence. The Evil Child is a horror staple and Raya fits easily into the type: biting, screaming, setting fires, killing animals. She blames a monster who she often looks up towards the ceiling at and draws on the walls in the house. They visit a psychologist, who confidently explains this figure as a protector and way to offset guilt for her behaviour. However, he advises Raya to participate in a clinical study, where testing points to a biological reason.
Despite almost everyone advising that Raya is beyond her care, Wiebke refuses to believe she cannot help her. A clear parallel emerges between her treatment of her child and the horse she is currently training. Wiebke’s equine expertise is grounded in patience, care and hard work – over time, she establishes a routine and a relationship that resolves even the most difficult case. Taking a similar approach to Raya, she goes to extraordinary lengths to create the right environment for the girl to improve.
Wiebke makes sacrifices to her health, work, relationships and even her elder daughter’s safety. Her behaviour seems irrational, if not irresponsible, as she endangers not only herself but others. By prioritising Raya’s needs, Wiebke enables her to harm above the other children around her, including Nicolina, her friend’s son and her preschool class. But Raya’s behaviour still worsens.
The question of if this is a manifestation of trauma or something supernatural is not addressed until the third act. While it is hinted at in one early scene when Wiebke sees shadows pass across the ceiling, this is readily explained as a cast from the moonlight shining through the window. But Wiebke’s denial of science and her increasing desperation opens her up to the possibility that Raya is afflicted by an outside force. She accepts the help of her stable hand’s friend, a witch, though seems neither sceptical nor convinced. In two ritual scenes, the women invoke old and powerful dark magic, though these are brief and grounded in realism, unlike the wild and hallucinogenic sequence that might be expected.
PELICAN BLOOD deals with trauma in a sensitive way, acknowledging it as something that can follow a person for their whole life, shaping who they are and how they interact with the world. Wiebke is distressed by her knowledge of Raya’s past, understanding that behaviour is not her fault but stems from the acts of terrible adults. Gebbe does not heroise Wiebke but neither does she judge her (though the people in Wiebke’s life certainly do). Hoss’ performance is exceptional, with the camera justified in frequently lingering on her face, portraying a woman who is determined, guarded, patient, and fiercely devoted. Lipovska is similarly impressive in a demanding role, growling, staring vacantly and delivering lines with a convincing viciousness. Though pushed to her limit both physically and psychologically by this child, Wiebke is resolute that their bond cannot be broken and she will stay with her, no matter the cost.