Monday, September 26, 2011

NYFF ’11: Dreileben

There is a fugitive in the woods. He might be an innocent man or a dangerous psychopath. Determining the truth is a tricky proposition in Dreileben, a trilogy of interlocking films produced for German television in the tradition of Red Riding, which screens in its entirety this coming Saturday as part of the 49th New York Film Festival.

Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, begins the cycle, but keeps most of the crime drama off-screen. While visiting his dying mother in hospital, the convicted murderer Molesch essentially walks away from his police guard. A manhunt ensues. To shield him from inquiries, Dr. Drier gives some time off to Johannes, the nursing intern on duty that fateful night. It allows the pre-med student time to pursue a passionate in-the-moment romance with the tempestuous Ana, a Bosnian refugee working as a maid in the hotel that will eventually factor into the police investigation. He might even forget Sarah Drier, the head doctor’s daughter, who dumped Johannes in no uncertain terms.

Petzold’s Dead and Dominik Graf’s subsequent Don’t Follow Me Around are like some of Claude Chabrol’s craftier late films, presenting the nefarious business obliquely, while ostensibly focusing on the workaday lives of those seemingly on its margins. Yet, Petzold creates a palpable undercurrent of menace that carries over for his filmmaker colleagues. He also presents an unusually dark and intense vision of young love (or lust) that sometimes borders on the unsettling.

Luna Mijovic burns up the screen as Ana, viscerally projecting her raw self-destructive impulses and insecurities. Jacob Matschenz is also quite effective keeping the audience off-balance as the everyman Johannes, while Vijessna Ferkic is appropriately hot and shallow as Sarah Drier. Indeed, not only is Dead the strongest film of the trilogy, it also (quite conveniently) stands alone better than its companion films.

Still, for those willing to buy into Dreileben, Graf’s Follow is also quite clever, nicely explaining a few of the confusing moments in Dead. Johanna is a single-mother police psychologist in the tradition of the old Profiler show, sent to help the corrupt and incompetent local constabulary capture Molesch. Yet, she is considerably more interested in revisiting some important episodes from her past with her old friend Vera, with whom she is staying. We also briefly meet Marcus Kreil, the one competent copper who will be featured prominently in the final film.

While Graf shows bits and pieces of the investigative process, he keeps the mood lighter, centering his film on themes of friendship and family more often encountered in women’s fiction than police procedurals. Though the tonal ringer of the trilogy, it still keeps viewers intrigued in the macro story.

Though arguably the most visually stylish of the three, Christoph Hochhäusler’s One Minute of Darkness unfortunately fails to tie everything together, leaving a rat’s nest of loose ends unresolved, even adding several of its own. Molesch finally comes front-and-center, but in a way this is a mistake. Granted, it is something of a pay-off to finally understand his escape and strange sojourn through Ana’s hotel. Yet, as evidently something of a man-child, Molesch is better represented as the wolf in the woods than a figure we come to know on intimate terms. To be fair though, Stefan Kurt nicely conveys the ambiguity of his character keeping open the possibility Molesch may either be a naïf or a maniac.

Darkness works best when focusing on Kreil, played with haggard gravitas by Eberhard Kirchberg. In addition to juggling family issues (like Johanna), the honest copper is responsible for some of Dreileben’s smartest police work, more of which would have strengthened Darkness.

Like Red Riding, Carlos, Mesrine, and Mysteries of Lisbon, Dreileben is the sort of sprawling canvas worth spending time with, just to appreciate its ambition. Naturally somewhat uneven as the product of three directors, Dreileben also peaks with its first film. Yet, there is something insidiously compelling about this shared world, like a more grounded German Twin Peaks, that holds true for all three installments.

If festival patrons only see one part of Dreileben, it should be Petzold’s film. If time and interest allow for two, Follow is readily recommended as well. Though the concluding Darkness is a bit of a letdown, it is ultimately worth seeing for Kirchberg’s work and the partial closure it provides. Altogether, it is a genuine screening event and one of the highlights of the 2011 New York Film Festival. The full trilogy screens this coming Saturday (10/1) at the Walter Reade Theater, while the constituent parts screen on successive nights the following Tuesday through Thursday (10/4/10/6) at the Francesca Beale Theater.