London Film Festival 2011 Diary Special: Dreileben

Note: I saw Dreileben over the course of a couple of days, but since the three films were conceived, shot and released together I didn’t want to split the reviews over two posts. I’ll talk about each individual film, but I’m going to address them as a whole piece for the purposes of heading up this review.

DREILEBEN [1: Beats Being Dead / 2: Don’t Follow Me Around / 3: One Minute of Darkness]
(Christian Petzold / Dominik Graf / Christoph Hochausler)

Dreileben came out of a long email discussion between three German filmmakers, the final result is three tight little films, all involving, to varying degrees, a single inciting event – the escape from custody of a convicted murderer – and linked by small moments that recur between films. Of the three directors I’m only familiar with the work of Beats Being Dead director Christian Petzold, whose incredibly austere Yella held a great performance by Nina Hoss, but was a film I struggled to like as a whole, the other two are completely new to me, and are likely to be new to most English audiences. While each film is quite different from the last it does have to be said that they work as pieces of a larger whole.

Beats Being Dead does, to some degree, feel familiar having seen Yella, even with only two films seen it’s easy to see some running themes in Petzold’s work, indeed, leads Jacob Maschentz and Luna Mijovic (also in Breathing at the LFF) could pass for younger versions of Yella‘s Devid Streisow and Nina Hoss, and, perhaps more importantly, there is a similar sense of nagging, dragging, unease about this film. This episode focuses on Johannes (Maschentz), a young medical student who is working at the hospital the convict escapes from, however, that plot only plays in the deep background, as Johannes strikes up a relationship with Ana (Mijovic), a beautiful young woman whose mood swings tend to the extreme. The film focuses in close on this relationship. It could have just been your standard film about teenage lovers, but Ana’s almost Bipolar moods, the sense that there are things in Ana’s past that she is keeping secret and the sense of danger both from the guys Ana is hanging around with when we first meet her and a mysterious man covered in blood all add up to create a very uneasy atmosphere.

Set against this, Petzold shoots the film with a strikingly aesthetic eye. Compositions tend to the formal and colours are strikingly vivid, particularly red, which increases in presence towards the end of the film. If the film is formal, the performances lean heavily towards naturalism, with the strikingly beautiful Mijovic impressing by making a character who expresses herself almost completely in extremes believable. Many will find the ending of this film deeply frustrating, but I actually like loose ends in the right films; they keep you thinking, and the abrupt and mysterious close of Beats Being Dead haunts long after the credits roll.
Beats Being Dead: 3.5 / 5

Don’t Follow Me Around (perhaps my favourite of the three very cool titles for the Dreileben parts) is quite a different film to it immediate predecessor; Dominic Graf’s camera is freer than Christian Petzold’s, more a participant than an observer and his screenplay is much talkier, it’s a different sort of film, and moves the overall genre from romantic thriller to domestic drama/thriller, but keeps that same undertone of tension, though for different reasons.

The escaped murderer has to be caught, and psychologist Johnanna (Jeanette Hain) is sent to aid in the search, rather than stay in a hotel she stays with old friend Vera (Susanna Wolff) and her husband Bruno (Misel Maticevic), but when Jo and Vera begin talking about a mutual old flame, tensions appear to rise in the house. Again, from a performance standpoint, naturalism is the order of the day, and the three actors do a great job of creating a very natural sort of unease, which grows as the film goes on. It’s there in Bruno’s obvious attraction to Jo, in the way Jo and Vera subtly compete as they discuss old flame Paul and in a certain terseness in the performances.

The film ties in to Beats Being Dead only at a handful of points, and does so with impressive restraint, showing us the proximity of these two stories while not having one directly affect the other. These tie ins happen in the police procedural part of the film, which is well executed, and skilfully leads you in one direction (towards the escaped killer) before revealing that that’s not what it’s about. The tension of the film finally comes fully to fruition in a scene which has a naked Bruno and Jo thinking that there is someone unknown on the property as they look for Bruno’s lost glasses, it’s a strong scene, made all the more effective by the vulnerability conveyed by the nudity.

Some other critics have called this the weak link in the Dreileben trilogy, but I liked it a great deal. It is perhaps more conventional than Beats Being Dead, but Don’t Follow Me Around is full of strong twists, fine performances, and maintains a tone that really hooks you in.
Don’t Follow Me Around: 3 / 5

And I suppose that this is where I get controversial (there’s usually a point in most reviews, I find), because for me One Minute of Darkness, which has been many people’s favourite, is far and away the least notable film of the Dreileben triptych. With this film, director Christoph Hochausler finally zeroes in on the story of escaped killer Franck Molesch (Stefan Kurt), the attempts to catch him, and one detective’s (Eberhard Kirchberg) reinvestigation of the case evidence. The problem here is that while both previous films had elements that we had seen before this is really a whole film of overwhelming familiarity for me. That’s a problem because, while Hochausler’s style (closer to Petzold’s slightly removed observation than to Graf’s more up close and personal shooting) results in some diverting moments – particularly broodingly tense shots of the woods where Molesch hides – and he’s got at least one really good chase sequence up his sleeve, the destination of the plot is never in much doubt.

Stefan Kurt is excellent though; paranoid and fraught as Molesch, but chilling in certain moments (largely those which connect back, particularly the film’s chilling closing frames, to the previous parts) and Kirchberg is refreshingly free of bombast as the doubting cop. For me though my certainty about where the bulk of the mystery was headed from the start, and the ease with which I connected the other dots robbed the film of much of the peculiarly tense pull of the first two parts. There are things to enjoy here, but I’m glad this was the third film, because had it been the first (and I suppose you could watch them in any order), I may well have failed to finish the series, which would have been a shame.
One Minute of Darkness: 2.5 / 5

As a whole, Dreileben is absolutely worth seeing, and worth seeing through. It’s a bold experiment, not completely successful, and sure to divide people both as a whole and in terms of which part they like best, but with the directors saying that Dreileben’s 4, 5 and 6 are possible, this is interesting enough to get me to sit down for those, should they happen.
Dreileben: 3 / 5

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