First a prelude. This review contains spoilers. Also, this review is going to criticize an Autorenkino film. Autorenkino ("author-cinema") is the word for movies made by independent (often young) directors, working from their own script and ideas, subsidized by Germany’s bewilderingly complex network of overlapping film foundations. Germans media types are proud of their film subsidy scheme, which really does create breathing space for offbeat projects with an individual stamp.
Sometimes, the result’s quite interesting. Often it’s average, and sometimes it’s self-indulgent: a movie that make a bunch of sophomore narrative and technical mistakes; or that feature navel-gazing explorations of the emotional lives of uninteresting people; or that cries out for an aggressive editor and a script doctor. You wouldn’t know this, though, because in the German media, Autorenkino movies (also ones from other countries) are treated with kid-gloves. Reviewers will overlook ludicrous implausibilities, longueurs, and stilted dialogue, and instead praise a film’s "sensitive exploration" of a "delicate topic." (an example of this very muted criticism of the flim under review is here (G))
Well, you won’t get any of that here. I won’t get my subsidies cut if I rub somebody the wrong way, so I will tell you exactly what I think about this movie. So here goes.
Vier Minuten ("Four Minutes") features lesbians and Nazis, and it’s set in a women’s prison. A certain kind of film fan is now thinking: so far so good! But wait, there’s so much more. It also has two hangings, an attempted suicide, intentional self-mutilation, a threatened extrajudicial execution, and incest. Hmm, you may be thinking now, that seems a bit much. This isn’t one of those German movies in which people scream at each other, throw things around, and engage in self-destructive behavior to show how deep their tortured souls are, is it?
I’m afraid it is. And not a particularly coherent one at that. The plot, briefly: Traude Krueger (Monica Bleibtreu) is an elderly spinster who teaches piano in a women’s prison. Her star pupil is Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung, whose last name means "Heartleap"). Hannah is a skulking, antisocial twentysomething serving a long sentence for a brutal murder. And, like so many murderers, Jenny is also a piano prodigy capable of sight-reading music and tossing off a flawless Beethoven sonata, even after years out of practice and hand injuries. The wizened old piano teacher, who insists on ladylike discipline from her charges, immediately offends the chain-smoking, unwashed young brat, causing a bloody row.
But wouldn’t ya know it, eventually they come to respect each other and share their deepest secrets. It will also come as no surprise that Jenny is not really guilty of murder, but took the fall for her worthless boyfriend. Or that the old spinster decides that music can heal the damaged soul hidden under the spiky facade of self-mutilating rebellion. That’s 3 psychodrama cliches. There may be a movie that’s recovered from going 3 for 3 here, but if there is, I have yet to see it.
And Vier Minuten is not that movie. It moves from contrived conceit (outside: beefy prison guard; inside: sensitive opera lover!) to contrived conceit (Jenny’s day-trip to a piano competition falls victim to petty bureaucratic infighting!) with the sure-footedness of a wood-nymph stepping from stone to stone across a mountain stream. The contrived situations are only aggravated by contrived shots — over-cute pans and quirky angles that repeatedly call attention to themselves in the wrong way. The whole thing is overheated and overstuffed. It has several passages of what I can only call, to use a German word, Gefuehlskitsch (literally, ’emotional kitsch’). Somebody needed to tell the director, Chris Kraus: "You’ve got an interesting idea here, but your movie can contain either Nazis or incest or repressed homosexual desire or self-mutilation. Not all four."
To be fair, the film isn’t a complete wash. Herzsprung and Bleibtreu do rather ham it up, but in a watchable way that invests the characters with some real depth. Herzsprung is especially soulful; I look forward to seeing her paired with a more plausible script. The final scene, set in a competition for young musicians, is brought off with panache. But the whole thing is just too artificial, too art-house, too self-indulgently Autorenkino and at least 20 minutes too long.