Dispatches from the Goethe-Institut’s annual celebration of contemporary German cinema, this year commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with 25 feature films.
Set between Germany and Norway in 1990, Two Lives opens in media res with a woman arriving at the airport and changing into a dark wig in the bathroom. It is from this point that the film asks its central question: who is this woman?
She (Juliane Köhler) is known as Katrine Evensen, a ‘war child’ of a Norwegian mother and German soldier during the Nazi-occupation. She is also a mother, grandmother, wife, and daughter of a happy family. This simple life is threatened when a lawyer tracks her down to get her testimony for a trial against the Norwegian state on behalf of the war children. She wants nothing to do with this trial or to dredge up the past, but her reluctance draws suspicion from her family and the facade begin to crack.
Director George Maas unravels the plot with great clarity, allowing us to understand, piece by piece, with the occasional grainy flashback, who Katrine Evensen really is and why her current identity is so important to her. It’s a dark, uncompromising story supported by accomplished camerawork and a moody soundtrack. Even more impressively, he takes us on a brief tour of the history behind the war children (Lebensborn) without getting bogged down by it. What could feel like a didactic history lesson manages to translate seamlessly into a compelling narrative. At times, it risks over explaining or compromising the film’s ambiguity with heavy exposition, but it remains a fascinating study of a woman caught between secrets and lies.
The supporting cast are all competent in their roles. In particular, Liv Ullmann, as Katrine’s mother, manages to add a layer of deep distress beyond her initial image of maternal warmth. And Sven Nordin as Anne’s husband, Naval Officer Bjarte, has a strong presence that grounds the domestic scenes of the film. But it is Juliane Köhler’s show at the end of the day, swinging back and forth between steely determination and raw vulnerability, perfectly embodying the notion of morally grey as Katrine Evensen.
That Katrine is not who she says she is will come as no surprise to the audience after the film’s opening. It is how Maas and his crew lay the intricate groundwork for the film that makes it so effective. We become active participants watching Katrine’s house of cards come crashing down. If the emotional stakes are never quite as high as they aim to be, its because Maas compromises some of the story’s strength as a domestic drama for some twists and turns, but the elegance in which they’re executed elevates the film beyond simple entertainment.
One of the golden rules of romantic comedies is that opposites attract. Jakob Lass, director and co-writer of Love Steaks, knows this well. Clemens (Franz Rogowski) is a shy, awkward massage therapist; Lara (Lana Cooper) is a brash, alcoholic chef-in-training. They meet on an elevator at their shared workplace, a luxury seaside resort. She notices he’s sweating profusely and proceeds to tell him he’s gross. This is not your typical meet-cute. And this is not going to be your typical romcom.
That Love Steaks has been billed by the filmmakers as the world’s first FOGMA film (an obvious nod to Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 movement) seems mostly inconsequential. The goal for the first FOGMA film was to incorporate “the strong narrative of a film script, the freshness and enthusiasm of an improv film, and the authentic absurdity of a documentary” into the filmmaking process. Unfortunately, the film isn’t totally successful in creating a strong narrative. For most of the film, the central couple seem to be left to their own devices, meandering without purpose through their existence and relationship, playing childish games to pass the time. For all its innuendo and sexual references, the actual eroticism of the film is relatively restrained. It does, however, mostly succeed in creating an air of spontaneity that feels improvised. Under such conditions, the editing of the film becomes one of its biggest assets, weaving seemingly unconnected fly-on-the-wall moments together to give the film its loose structure. That and the handheld camerawork create a playful energy that becomes the backbone of the film.
Both Rogowski and Cooper are well-suited to their characters, playing against type—he isn’t your conventional leading man and she doesn’t conform to any ideals of feminine beauty. It is also to Love Steak’s credit that the actors are given as much time as they are to breathe and inhabit their roles. We believe in their growing tentative romance, but the story struggles to take the couple anywhere beyond that, relying heavily on Lara’s drinking problem as a plot device.
The film flourishes the most when it indulges in bold acts of filmmaking. There is a scene early on where Lara is driving drunk from the cops, which is chopped into a series of jump cuts, recalling Godard’s Breathless. Later, in a scene that lives up to the title of the film, shots of a steak being cooked are juxtaposed with the kneading of human flesh. These unexpectedly cinematic moments are sorely missing from the rest of the film which mostly end up feeling oddly static.
In its final minutes, Love Steaks rushes to reach an ending, haphazardly pushing the central couple towards a resolution. The result is an explosive and exciting showdown for the mismatched pair, but it doesn’t feel earned in the slightest. For all its ambitions to be fresh, the finished product is disappointingly undercooked.