Director: Chris Kraus
2007 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Opening night of the European Union Film Festival brought us a lot of dignitaries from EU consulates, a lot of speechifying, and chastening comments about how much work goes into a festival like this. I have learned over the years that unlike most of the actors whose films they show, festival programmers always want people to see them sweat. At last, the lights dimmed, the black curtains parted, and the first film of the festival began with a shock opening.
A lot of barbed wire. It looks as though the Berlin Wall still stands, and this is the dividing point. Faces glimpsed in small, confining windows. Not the Wall. It’s a prison. Then bare feet suspended in air behind something. Yes, a bunk bed. The camera pans up to a young woman asleep on the top bunk. What of the feet? Is someone holding onto a bar or window ledge? No, we clearly make out from limp arms and a dropped head half cut out of the frame that a woman is hanged behind the bed. The sleeper awakes, glances at the body, and then grabs the dead woman’s cigarettes from her pocket and lights one up. Yes, Mr. Kraus, you have our attention.
Cut to some driving rock music. Is it the soundtrack signaling a mood change? No. Two large, tattooed men are in the cab of a truck, listening to a cranked radio. A withered old woman sits hugging the passenger door. She reaches over and changes the station to classical. The two men shrug and keep driving.
In these two scenes, we are introduced to the protagonists of the film—Jenny von Loeben (Hannah Herzsprung), an incarcerated murderer, and Traude Krüger (Monica Bleibtreu), a piano teacher and the organist for the church at Jenny’s prison. Their characters are shorthanded to us quickly and effectively. Both women are hard, no-nonsense, accustomed to rough, not smooth. This is going to be a barbed movie.
The two men—ex-cons who are not allowed on the prison grounds by the by-the-book guard Kowalski (Richy Müller)—are delivering a new piano for Frau Krüger. The prison warden, Meyerbeer, (Stefan Kurt), however, is threatening to cut the piano program. Krüger has only four students. Krüger says five. No, one of them has hanged herself. Krüger says her first warden was skeptical about the program, too. Who was that, asks Meyerbeer. “SS,” is the reply, and we are treated to one of many flashbacks that will piece together a story of Traude’s first love and loss in the final days of World War II.
One day, when Frau Krüger is playing organ in church, she spies in a broken piece of mirror she uses to watch the service Jenny, fingering the notes of the piece on the back of a pew. When it’s time for the piano lessons to recommence, Jenny is waiting outside the practice room—a cell on her block where she is taunted by another inmate who was upset that Jenny did nothing to stop her cellmate from hanging herself. “I was sleeping,” said Jenny.
After several disappointing lessons, Frau Krüger sees Jenny ushered into the room by Mütze (Sven Pippig), a guard with whom Krüger has a somewhat friendly relationship. In fact, Krüger is a brittle, prickly woman with no intimates. She has kept company with her loss for 50 years. Even so, she betrays an interest in Jenny. Although she refuses to teach Jenny that day because Jenny has picked the skin on her hands apart, Krüger has had a glimpse of Jenny’s extraordinary musical talent. Jenny protests that she wants her lesson. When Mütze grabs her to remove her from the practice room, Jenny loses control and beats him near to death. Krüger stands by, frozen like a statue, and moves wordlessly out as guards come rushing by. Krüger visits Jenny on her straitjacket bench and begins the delicate negotiation that will bring the two women into an alliance of music, culminating in a four-minute per- formance in the finals of a com- petition at the Berlin Opera House.
Kraus orchestrates this film like a fugue, cutting through time and space. He builds suspense about Jenny and the very real possibility that she might kill Traude or be killed herself by the revenge-minded Mütze and other prisoners. Unfortunately, his film’s technical originality and an extraordinary performance by Bleibtreu can’t quite overcome the incredibly clichéd story. A clash of a teacher insisting on discipline and forbidding anything but classical music, and her rebellious student who finds expression in modern music, is as old as the hills. Making the teacher and student such extreme characters dulls the cliché but still doesn’t rescue this story. In addition, there are many moments that happen strictly to cobble the story together and create moments that ring false from their opening chord.
Further, giving us Krüger’s entire backstory is really not necessary. We see a photo of Wilhelm Furtwängler on her wall. This extraordinary conductor was supposed to have been Traude’s teacher and mentor. He chose to continue his career in Germany during Hitler’s reign of terror and paid a heavy price for it. Most likely, it is his influence that has made Traude so dedicated to Jenny’s gift, overlooking her terrible crime and extremely dangerous temperment. The remarkable film Taking Sides (2001), with one of Harvey Keitel’s most compelling and original roles and performances, truly engages this ethical dilemma in a way that Four Minutes might have liked to, but didn’t. Instead, we are weighed down by the current vogue of lesbians on film and nonlinear story lines. We lose the greater significance of the ages-old debate of whether an artistic gift forgives all personal failings.
Despite these shortcomings, however, the final, redemptive composition Jenny performs is a truly exciting piece of music, and Herzsprung gives the performance her all. If you choose to see Jenny as a representative of the new generation of Germans—and this wouldn’t be the worst way to interpret this film—she does it very well. She shows their desire to be free of the crimes and culture of the past. If they are going to be criminals, let it be in the cause of fighting the rigidity of the German state and the oppression of patriarchy. So it seems that Kraus was bogged down by the past, but trying to break free. I’ll be interested to see what this young director comes up with next. l