A big hospital on the outskirts of a small city in the middle of the Thuringian Forest. Here Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) carries out his alternative national service as the head physician, a family friend, has recruited him. Johannes gets to know Ana (Luna Mijovic). During the night of their first embrace, a sex offender escapes from the hospital. His flight and the police’s hectic search accompany the story of Johannes and Ana – a love story transcending boundaries, without a future.
GERMAN FILM FESTIVAL: The 'Dreileben’ project came about as a result of an extended email correspondence between three of Germany’s leading contemporary filmmakers, Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler, subsequently reprinted in the film journal Revolver. The subject under discussion was the state of contemporary German cinema: the diminishing audience for smaller, more thoughtful works, the opportunities (and restrictions) offered by television, the function of genre, and, not least, the aesthetics of the so-called 'Berlin School’, to which at least two of the three—Petzold and Höchhausler—were commonly assumed to belong.
As ever, Petzold’s tone is cool, observational
Named after the village in Saxony where all three films are set, the title also translates, tellingly, as 'three lives’. And sure enough, each of the films focuses on a different character, while departing from the same inciting incident: the escape of a convicted murderer (tellingly named Molesche) from police custody. This one, the first, charts a youthful romance, which begins and finally splinters, under the weight of various misunderstandings, during the period of Molesche’s flight; the second follows a female police psychologist, who arrives in the town to assist the investigation; the third focuses, at last, upon the fugitive himself.
For many reviewers, the obvious point of reference was 2009’s The Red Riding Trilogy, the Channel 4 mini-series which saw another three filmmakers, all British, tackle chapters of a single, novelistic story. But that one unfolded chronologically, with each film occupying its own distinct period (1974, 1980, 1983); this one, by contrast, extends 'horizontally’, with events occurring in parallel across the same stretch of time—and complicates its narrative accordingly. Its ambiguities, the handful of nagging questions raised along the way, are not fully resolved until the final part—and even then, perhaps not as completely as some viewers might wish. Nevertheless, it’s an intensely rewarding ride.
This first instalment belongs to writer-director Christian Petzold, to my mind the most interesting and accomplished German filmmaker currently working. A young medical intern, Johannes, glimpses the fugitive momentarily in the hospital chapel, sitting at the bedside of a dead woman—but doesn’t realise who he is; soon after, he becomes fascinated by a girl, Ana, hanging out with a gang of leather-clad bikers. He observes them together, then spies on them; he watches her service one of them sexually. And when finally they dump her, he’s quickly on hand to step in. Despite her initial misgivings, they begin to form a romantic relationship . . .
By restricting the action to, essentially, three locations—the hospital (and the attached nurses’ hostel, where Johannes lives), the hotel where Ana works, and the long footbridge across a river which connects the two—Petzold creates a network of correspondences and visual rhymes. Much of the film’s 'action’ involves either Ana or Johannes retreating from the other, either emotionally (when she uses the same line to him, in bed, that he saw her use on one of the bikers to whom she gave a blowjob in the forest), or physically: there are numerous scenes of one of them—usually Ana—walking away, furious at some perceived slight, while the other, exasperated or weary, gives chase.
The effect is weirdly disconcerting: for all the playfulness of some of their scenes together, their courtship is, in some respects, a kind of extended pursuit, complete with disquieting overtones of trespass and invasion. (Each of them, for example, intrudes unannounced into the other’s workspace.) As such, it mirrors the authorities’ pursuit of the fugitive, glimpsed only in a series of fragments: a police helicopter flying fast and low upriver, a string of cop cars whizzing by, dogs barking at a roadblock. All occurring on the periphery of this story.
Underlining all this, as usual with Petzold, are deeper issues of class and ethnicity. A Bosnian immigrant, saddled with an unemployed mother and forced to provide for her younger brother, Ana is eager to escape the poverty of her prospects. Thus, no sooner has Johannes let slip his desire to study in Los Angeles, than she’s planning a future there together. She assumes that he’s from a wealthy family—he’s going to be a doctor, isn’t he?—and is somewhat chagrined to learn, later, that he owes his internship at the hospital only to a favour from its chief surgeon, a long-time friend of his mother. Who is herself struggling to make ends meet.
Petzold has said that the story was inspired by the mythological tale of Undine: a water-nymph whose beauty inspires a young nobleman to abandon his aristocratic lover to be with her—only to see him later return to her, breaking her heart. But it must also be understood as the first instalment of a story that’s fully comprehensible only at the end of the trilogy. In particular, there’s a pivot-point at the very end of the second act, at a birthday party thrown by Johannes’ boss for his daughter, Sarah, when everything appears to have shifted: suddenly Johannes, devoted to Ana in the preceding scene, is coldly rejecting her in favour of Sarah—who was, we learn, his former girlfriend. His attitude—and in particular, one puzzling line of dialogue—suggests that something momentous has occurred off-screen; clearly, there has been a narrative ellipsis. But we don’t yet quite know what, or why.
As ever, Petzold’s tone is cool, observational. Which is not to say passionless: on the contrary, he has a particular gift for staging moments of tender physical intimacy—as when, here, Johannes and Ana dance together in his room while he whispers, translated into German, the lyrics to Julie London’s 'Cry Me a River’ softly in her ear. Or the pair lying in bed together as they revise—by touch—his anatomy homework. Meanwhile, he takes the opportunity to revisit some of his signature visual motifs—in particular: the sight of a person lying, either asleep or unconscious, by the banks of a river (familiar from films like Yella and Barbara), which here befalls both Johannes and Ana, and only adds to the fairytale-like unreality of proceedings.
And then there is the final shot, which leaves the film—and Johannes’ new relationship with Sarah—hanging on a question left eerily unanswered. It’s a bold move, and one which confirms Petzold’s pre-eminence among his peers. In both its aesthetic—the precision of its compositions, the very deliberate mise-en-scene, the glassy clarity of its digital images—and its slightly hermetic tone, it could be by no other filmmaker.