"Idiot." "Birdbrain." "Cretin." A mother's terms of endearment for her young son. A little unorthodox maybe, but these are Germans we're talking about, so you have to make allowances. Twenty-something Silvija (Chulpan Khamatova, from Goodbye Lenin!) and her young son Ozren (Stanislav Lisnic) are actually as close as a mother and son could be. He is a natural-born mama's boy, who wets the bed and then immediately confesses, in order to get her attention. She is a single mother who keeps Ozren on a meticulous schedule, dragging him out of bed every morning and marching him off to school with a determined, no-nonsense attitude. At night, she puts on garters and hose, makeup, and a giant mink coat before heading off to her "waitressing" job, as she calls it. This routine goes on for years with only the occasional, easily-deflected question from Ozren. By the time he reaches his teens, however, he has become acutely aware that the whispered taunts from his schoolmates are grounded in fact. He is a hurensohn -- a whore's son.

 

The most intriguing question in this playful-but-intense psycho-sexual drama from director Michael Sturminger is whether or not Silvija wants her son to know that she is a prostitute. It's possible that she does. After all, as far as prostitutes go, she has some bragging rights. When we first see her, she is a refugee fresh off the train from the bloody Balkans; little more than a common streetwalker with a toddler on her back. She happens to be quite good-looking, though -- nothing like the schweinhunds we see entering and leaving the seedy downtown brothels. By the time Ozren is fifteen-ish, Silvija has become a one-woman business, renting out a special apartment where she meets clients and taking limousines to brunch downtown. She senses that Ozren has become immune to her lies, so she stops putting on the pretense of a normal job, and simply insists that they not discuss her job. When Ozren's uncle dares to suggest that maybe she find another line of work, she snaps at him "Who do you think you are? I make more in a week than you do in a month." She seems to genuinely believe that Ozren will eventually work these issues out for himself and come to accept her for who she is, no questions asked. But it's not that simple for a mama's boy.

The subject of the film is not so much Silvija's job, but how it interferes with Ozren's sexual awakening. When a pretty Serbian girl arrives at his school as a new student, he begins to eyeball her like a hawk eyeing a mouse in a cornfield, from a mile up. He buys her a Coke, which she accepts. In fact, she wraps her lips around the straw and sucks it down in one long sip, never taking her eyes off of him. Cut to Ozren shopping with Silvija and walking up to the checkout line with an armful of Coke cans. She angrily waves him away, refusing to pay for them. The subtext here, of the sexually dominant mother waving off any competition, is hard to miss. Silvija also allows Ozren to take a job scrubbing floors at the dingy brothel where she used to work when she was a small-timer, but when she finds out that a fat mess of a prostitute who works there tried to seduce Ozren into bed, she bursts into the place, shouting and screaming at the woman. So again, the question is asked: What does Silvija want? Is she trying to drive her son crazy? Does she understand or care how confusing her signals are to the boy?

In the way that adopted children have an inborn desire to find out exactly what their real parents are all about, Ozren wants to understand what his mother is really like -- why does she find it necessary to hide a huge piece of her life from him? This is a fairly normal question for anyone to have, but Silvija is no ordinary mother, and Ozren is, shall we say, a little quirky. The question that eventually presents itself is whether or not his need to understand his mother's secret life manifests itself sexually. As Ozren begins to devote more and more of his attention to finding out why and how his mother does what she does for a living, the film's Freudian subtext slowly rises to the surface. Because of the special closeness that mother and son have always had, Ozren probably feels entitled to know the secrets of his mother's sexuality, even if, intellectually, he knows where the red lines are drawn as much as the next person. Watch his face when he finds out the phone number of his mother's business apartment and calls to listen to the message on the answering machine.

The way the film brings this whole issue to a head is bracing, and even a little shocking, but more important than the resolution is the fact that Silvija's character somehow comes across as sympathetic through the whole thing. The film never goes into exactly what she went through during her youth in Yugoslavia, but she's not the type to suffer fools or brook any interference in her decision-making. She has an aggressively business-like personality, which is the correct choice on Chulpan Khamatova's part. Silvija is a saleswoman. She has something that men want, and she charges them excessively for it. Good for her. Hurensohn isn't a morality tale. The film doesn't really have a position on prostitution, except maybe to reinforce the notion that it's a dangerous, complicated occupation even in societies where the practice is more or less decriminalized. A couple of times during the course of the film we see Silvija opening drawers in her apartment stuffed with cash, and peeling off a roll of money for whatever Ozren needs at the moment. That's what it's all about, right?