The stylistic break from the preceding film announces itself from the very first frames
GERMAN FILM FESTIVAL: In the friendly email debate with his fellow filmmakers that inspired the Dreileben trilogy, Dominik Graf noted, not only the sternly impassive tone of much of the so-called 'Berlin School’ of filmmaking ('there’s very little humour in the characters’ relations with each other’), but also something more pernicious: 'the sharpened separation between 'art" and 'commerce" [which] leads to a total separation between 'experimental" and 'narrative" film.’ 'To survive today,’ he concluded, 'a director must decide very early upon one of these two. And I think this is lamentable.’
At 60, Graf is 8 years older than Christian Petzold and 20 years older than Christoph Hochhäusler. Furthermore, most of his career has been occupied with works made for television, which outnumber his theatrical features by almost eight to one; he knows something, therefore, about the tastes of a mainstream audience. Active since the 1970s, he’s one of the most prolific working directors in his country, yet almost unknown outside of it. And his own concerns pre-date (and arguably, pre-suppose) the philosophical preoccupations of any 'new Deutsch wave’.
It’s also telling that, in the same debate, Graf cited with approval Fassbinder’s remark that certain of his peers had 'begun filming their own critiques’—that is, making films which seemed to respond to predetermined aesthetic principles, rather than engaging (as Graf would wish) with 'narrative power and melancholy and an actual experience with life.’ He is, by his own admission, somewhat impatient with the academic nature of so-called 'arthouse’ filmmaking—its remoteness from ordinary experience, its apparent distaste for the satisfactions of conventional storytelling.
No such criticism could be levelled at his work here; indeed, the primary sense in this film, the middle part of the trilogy, is of ordinary life—unruly, contradictory—pouring into through cracks in the primary narrative and finally overwhelming it. It’s crowded, hectic—and as such, a radical departure from the depopulated, rather hermetic air of the first instalment, Petzold’s Beats Being Dead. Yet there are deeper structural similarities—not least, the disruption of the central relationship by the unexpected return of a third-party from the past, a pattern which is doubled here.
Johanna, a female police psychologist (well played by Jeanette Hain) is dispatched to the town of Dreileben, with two assistants, to join the hunt for the missing fugitive Molesche. The local police, however, are resentful of the outsiders—and with good reason, since Johanna’s duties soon prove rather more wide-ranging than anyone anticipated. (And the means for establishing their suspect’s guilt, in this instance, is achieved with a trick as simple as it is cinematically powerful.)
Meanwhile, the hotel into which she’s booked herself has lost her reservation, and she is forced to stay with an old friend, Vera, now restoring an old former guest-house with her new husband Bruno, a rather pretentious novelist. The rapport between the two women is immediate and obvious, but their affection soon slides into mutual jealousy and resentment when they realise that, a year before they first met, they both unwittingly shared the same lover in Berlin—a discovery which soon becomes more important to Johanna than even the hunt for the escaped killer.
The stylistic break from the preceding film announces itself from the very first frames, with Graf’s counter-intuitive use of 16mm stock, far warmer and more textured than the pellucid HD used in Beats Being Dead. The editing, too, is busy, moving briskly back and forth through a series of single shots and reversals during the conversations here, and occasionally cutting away altogether to contemplate some object at the margins of the action: a small painting on a bedroom wall; a statuette that holds particular significance for both women.
All of it very different from Petzold’s measured tone, his static, watchful camera. But appropriate for a film which is essentially about memory, and how the past keeps recurring, in various guises, to disfigure the present (a theme that will recur again, with tragic irony, in the final instalment). Indeed, buried secrets keep appearing everywhere here, as symbolised by the pieces of WWII-era rubble that Bruno keeps recovering from in and around his renovated house. Likewise, the director’s habit of splintering the pictorial space into two distinct elements, isolating the characters within separate frames, despite their close physical proximity.
And contrary to the final instalment, which unfolds through long stretches of silence, this is an extremely talky film, with conversations overlapping in a manner reminiscent of Robert Altman. Everyone here, it seems, has something to say—from Johanna’s father (the great Rüdiger Vogler, once Wim Wenders’ actor of choice), lamenting the fall of the DDR in the very first scene, to the hapless Bruno, who launches into a long, discursive monologue to the newly-arrived Johanna as if they’re old friends. Much of the banter is extremely funny, and some of it is genuinely intriguing—Bruno’s confession, for example, that he recalls the girls he saw in porn magazines in his adolescence with 'respect, gratefulness and tenderness.’ ('I remember these women as vividly as women from my own life. And I sometimes buy old porn mags off the net, hoping to see those women—those faces from the past—again.’)
Often, the middle segment of a film trilogy has served as a kind of scherzo between two deeper, graver movements: think of Kieslowski’s Three Colours: White. In some ways, this follows that model. But it’s also a complex and rigorous work in its own right, whose depths are easy to overlook beneath its deceptively simple surface. Appropriate, given Graf’s professed belief in Cocteau’s maxim that one shouldn’t need to strive for style; rather, it should be unavoidable. 'A hackneyed quotation,’ he wrote to Petzold and Hochhäusler, 'but still my Alpha and Omega.’