Frank Molesch (Stefan Kurt), convicted of murder, takes advantage of an opportunity to flee. He hides out in a forest. But the isolation and the knowledge he’s being hunted by police change him, and fear starts to get to him. The police use everything they’ve got to try to find him - but it’s a detective on sick leave who gets closest to the truth.
the tone here remains strictly dispassionate
GERMAN FILM FESTIVAL: It’s almost impossible to assess the Dreileben trilogy without considering its spiritual antecedent: the uniquely German phenomenon of the Tatort—the weekly TV crime dramas that have aired most Sunday evenings in the country since 1970. (The DDR had its own version: Polizeiruf 110, which also continues to this day.)
While the migration of cinematic talent to television is a comparatively new phenomenon in the United States and Britain—thanks to HBO and its imitators—Tatort has consistently attracted many of Germany and Austria’s finest actors, writers and directors; it’s a fixture in the viewing lives of most Germans. (Both lead actors here, Stefan Kurt and Eberhard Kirchberg, have both appeared in the series, as have Jeanette Hain and Jacob Matschenz and Frank Kessler from the previous films; while Domink Graf, who directed the middle instalment of this trilogy, has worked on both shows.)
One could therefore view Dreileben as both an extension and a critique of that form, simultaneously celebrating and deconstructing the genre’s conventions: the deranged killers, the obsessive cops, the frightened female victims. For this, the final part, the narrative focuses at last upon the character who, for the first two instalments, served as its defining absence. A spectral figure in the preceding films, glimpsed now and then at the fringes of the action, the escaped killer—tellingly named Molesche (and superbly played by Kurt)—takes centre stage this time around. As does Kreil, an aging cop, who is recalled to the case after many years, only to become preoccupied by the possibility of Molesche’s innocence.
Through this investigation, we gain an insight into the fugitive’s unhappy back-story—the inspiration for which, according to its writer-director, Christoph Hochhäusler, came from something the director of the first segment, Christian Petzold, once told him: a (mis-remembered) summary of a novel by Schiller, Der Verbrecher aus verlorener Ehre, about a man who became a murderer 'only because he was hounded.’ And certainly, this film—and the trilogy—ends on a bleakly ironic note, very much in the spirit of Schiller’s tale: replaying a scene from the first film, only this time with a slight variation. The effect is itself of something mis-remembered, and as such, weirdly destabilising, refuting any possibility of objective 'truth’.
But of the three directors involved in the project, Hochhäusler (who also edits the journal, Revolver, in which the original correspondence between himself, Petzold and Graf appeared) is the most doctrinaire. A theoretician as much as a practitioner, he maintains a very academic suspicion of narrative, which he believes 'contaminates the picture’; for him, the fact of observation is enough. (Or the act of not seeing, since the narrative here concerns itself with an ellipsis—specifically, a missing segment on an old surveillance tape, a 'minute of darkness’ which resulted in Molesche’s original arrest and conviction.)
Unsurprisingly, then, the tone here remains strictly dispassionate. With the result that, while the most outwardly 'commercial’ of the three films—with its tale of a psychologically disturbed killer stalking the countryside, and the haunted cop on his trail, it wears the raiments of a conventional police thriller—One Minute of Darkness is also the most rarefied. This results in a bracing rigour—but also, if we’re honest, occasional stretches of tedium, as we tag along behind the wandering Molesche, through shadowy wooded glades and shallow, fast-flowing rivers. (Though even the beauty and strangeness of the natural world, an overwhelming presence here, is tempered by the glassy artificiality of Reinhold Vorschneider’s HD cinematography.)
I’m not entirely convinced that the film’s climax—the hunted Molesche solving the riddle of his patrimony in a deserted house, cackling as flames rise around him—quite comes off. There seems to be a clumsiness in the staging, perhaps the result of a necessary friction between the director’s carefully de-dramatised stance, and the heightened, almost melodramatic tone of the 'contaminated’ genre filmmaking he’s imitating. But some of the individual set-pieces are strong—an escape from a bridge, in particular; and some of the grace notes struck along the way (like a fugitive boy, living in the woods, whose relationship with Molesche deliberately recalls that of the child and the monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein) are extraordinarily potent.
Though hailed, on its premiere at Berlin in 2011, as a Deutsche counterpart to Channel 4’s Red Riding Trilogy, Dreileben in fact seems much closer to Belgian filmmaker Lucas Belvaux’s 2003 Trilogie—a series which, like this one, told three separate stories based around the same sets of characters.
Belvaux however assigned each of his three parts a very different cinematic style: thus, Après la vie was a melodrama, Cavale a hard-boiled crime flick, and Un couple épatant a romantic comedy. This one departs, similarly, from a single incident—the escape of a convicted murderer from police custody (just as Belvaux’s convicted revolutionary busts out of prison in the first of his films)—but what tonal differences there are, come not from experiments in genre, but from these three filmmakers’ own, barely reconcilable aesthetics. Would that every academic discussion bore such fruitful, real-world results.