An elderly piano teacher, Traude (Monica Bleibtreu), takes on an immensely gifted but troubled student at the women's prison where she has taught since the Second World War. The student, Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung), is a violent sociopath who initially resists the 80-year-old's help but soon realises their union could help her reach her potential.

1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2014 - 4:38 PM
Too far-fetched to pack an emotional punch.

Written and directed by Chris Kraus, 4 Minutes recently won best film at the German film awards.

The story is set inside the hostile environment of Luckau prison where an elderly piano teacher, Traude, coaches convicted murderers, including the musical prodigy Jenny. Jenny undergoes rigorous training towards winning a prestigious music competition, thus bringing the prison much needed positive publicity. Traude (played by Monica Bleibtreu) has been playing piano within the walls of the prison since it was a Nazi occupied hospital and she can’t shake the ghosts of the past.

Young Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung) is a time bomb waiting to explode. She is the victim of incest and has no trust in anything or anyone. The film essentially is about these two woman’s unlikely relationship.

Monica Bleibtreu at 63 won best actress and newcomer Hannah Herzsprung won best supporting actress. And they’re both excellent in their respective roles. The contrast between their characters makes for some lovely images.

Bleibtreu has the stoop of a woman who is consumed with regret and Herzsprungs anger just jumps off the screen.

I was so impressed with Herzsprung, who beat 1200 hopefuls to secure the part of Jenny and underwent 6 months intensive piano training. The playing is crucial and she did it brilliantly.

Unfortunately, the narrative felt somewhat contrived. I didn’t buy that a prisoner in for the crime of decapitation, would be allowed the privilege of practicing piano for hours a day and also leave prison to attend the music competition.

Apart from the ending which took me somewhat by surprise, I feel as though I have seen this set up many times before – old, sad, lonely person helps young, troubled, angry person realise their potential.

The use of flashbacks to explain Traudes motives and sadness felt clumsy and at times patchy. I wasn’t sure even by the end of the film what Kraus was trying to say with these flashbacks. Maybe it was as simple as exploring an old woman’s guilt, but I just didn’t and still don’t see the connection to the rest of the film. The flash backs felt superfluous and confusing.

However, I liked very much the way the film was shot by Judith Kaufman. The look was grainy, with wonderful use of saturated colours giving it a fabulous rich texture. It encapsulated the sense of imprisonment both physically and metaphorically. She has deservedly gone on to win awards for her work.

Chris Kraus, a former journalist, took 8 years to write this film. And while the film was compelling at points, ultimately I felt a little dissatisfied. I was being asked to accept situations that just seemed too far-fetched to pack the emotional punch the film was begging for.

On the basis of Judith Kaufman’s excellent cinematography, I’m giving this 2½. 4 Minutes is in cinemas now.

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