Longing (Sehnsucht, 2006)

Director: Valeska Grisebach

2007 European Union Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is human nature to love stories, and for people with a particularly philosophical or analytical bent, a favorite type of story is the parable. Some fairytale creatures, such as princesses and paupers, are slotted into their appointed positions and set in motion, cranking out a plot that gives the observers a chance to uncover a human truth. One of the more famous parables, Frank Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?”, leaves it up to the reader to decide whether a princess aids or destroys her imprisoned lover. The princess is fearful that in choosing a judgment from behind one of two doors, her lover will be devoured by a tiger, but she is also mad with jealousy that he might marry someone other than her if he chooses the door that conceals the lady. Like most such stories, we get only the most general, if impassioned, description of the princess’ torment. We must then use what we know about human nature to guess her actions. These parables sometimes teach, but often they simply are used for the pleasant exchange of ideas.

Longing, in essence, retells the “The Lady or The Tiger?”, preserving the sketchiness of stock characters but creating a common human dilemma to which many viewers can relate—sin. Markus (Andreas Müller) is a handsome young metal worker who lives in a very small town in Germany with his charming wife and half-grown son. The couple seems very loving and happy. Unfortunately, when the film opens, Markus, a volunteer firefighter, is tending to an injured man by the side of the road. The man has deliberately run his car into a large tree, intending in a possible suicide pact to kill both himself and his wife. His wife lays dead, but thanks to Markus, the man survives.

The incident weighs on Markus, who can’t help feeling he ruined the man’s plans. His wife Ella (Ilka Welz) thinks the idea of dying for love is romantic, like Romeo and Juliet. Markus looks deeply into his wife’s eyes and says he’d do anything for her.

Sehnsucht_03.jpgMarkus is off with his squad to a firefighting training in a town about and hour’s drive away. At a banquet on the first night, the beer and schnapps flow freely. Several of the men dance with the waitresses. Markus is shown dancing alone, almost in a trance, to a song in English about tragic love. When we see him next, he is rousing from a deep slumber. He is in the flat of Rose (Anett Dornbusch), one of the waitresses. He doesn’t remember what happened. Over the next few days of the training, he spends all his spare time with Rose.

After he returns home, he tries to reconnect with his wife in a sexual union that looks awkward and tortured. Finally, he asks for some time alone. He returns to Rose’s town, where he determines to spend one more night with her, and then never see her again. Unfortunately, Rose is injured, an investigation ensues, all is revealed to Ella, and we are in for a shock. And in the end, we see several children retelling the story on a playground and trying to decide whether Markus returned to Ella or Rose.

Sehnsucht_rabbit.JPGThe film was made with nonactors and very little dialogue, thus giving us people we can’t recognize who aren’t very good at helping us feel what they are feeling to help us make sense of the moral dilemma. I tend to think it was the director’s intention to make this an everyman story in this way, but for a film that is only 88 minutes long, the journey is tedious and without any truly meaningful clues as to what these people are really like. It is impossible to know what choice Markus made—or was made for him by the women in his life—because we don’t really know anything about these people. The situation of sin and regret certainly is universal, but when we are left with children making the guesses, it’s obvious that this film is really just a philosophical game we’ve been led to play. I must say that I didn’t feel intrigued or challenged—only frustrated.

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