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'Bright Night' ('Nachthelle'): Munich Review

Bright Night Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Munich Film Fest

The Bottom Line

An ambitious and well-acted relationship drama with a structural device at its heart that doesn't quite work.

Venue

Munich Film Fest (New German Cinema)

Cast

Anna Grisebach, Benno Fuermann, Vladimir Burlakov, Kai Ivo Baulitz

Director

Florian Gottschick

German actors Anna Grisebach and Benno Fuermann play old friends in for an uncomfortable weekend with their new lovers in Florian Gottschick's pansexual drama.

A relaxing weekend in the country doesn't go quite as planned for two German couples in director Florian Gottschick's second feature, Bright Night (Nachthelle), an interesting narrative experiment that tries but doesn't fully succeed in grafting a few Freudian surprises onto a more conventional swingers tale. This well-acted film premiered at the recent Munich Film Fest, has also been selected for the Montreal festival and should pique the interest of distributors of foreign dramas with both a hint of piquancy and arthouse-only antics in the narrative department.

Anna (Anna Grisebach), around 40, and her much younger boy toy, Stefan (Vladimir Burlakov), have come to the former's quaint childhood home, tucked away in a lush, green forest in former East Germany. An old friend of Anna's, Bernd (Benno Fuehrmann), is already at the cottage with his boyfriend of many years, Marc (Kai Ivo Baulitz). The two couples are all set to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and each other's company over a long summer weekend. But like the open-pit mine activities that are happening nearby and sending unexpected small quakes throughout the region, there are things in Anna's and Bernd's past that start to influence the present, beginning with the revelation that Anna and Bernd used to be not only classmates but also lovers.

The screenplay, written by the director and Carsten Happe, artfully maneuvers its pieces into place in the first half-hour, even if the early revelation that Marc is a shrink, which in turns fuels talk about certain psychological concepts, feels a tad too convenient. The boozy nights that lead to talk about sex, and more particularly bad sex, however, should be familiar-feeling territory for many young-at-heart bourgeois fortysomethings who have come to that stage in their lives where they've realized that they like talking about sex, preferably with a glass of wine in their hand, a lot better than the dirty and exhausting business of actually having it.

In general, the foursome of actors is great, and their push-pull dynamics are convincing as some things — such as Anna's and Bernd's past relationship and then another incident from their childhood — are revealed in dialogue and others are implied in nice visual touches,such as the fact that Stefan, theoretically the only straight male of the bunch, is the most fastidious of all of them about grooming. The dynamics thus remain full of surprises and possibilities, and expectations are upended in ways that keep audiences guessing as to where this is all headed and how the past and the present are connected.

But the real head-scratchers, at least initially, are short, dreamlike scenes that primarily involve Anna and whose meaning is only gradually revealed. These add up to the least successful of the film's many revelations, mainly because the narrative sleight-of-hand required to pull off the intriguing twist is so big that it warranted more screen time to fully explore its repercussions.

Cinematographer Jakob Seemann and production designer Ane Nicholas-Rodriguez opt for a palette of peculiar greens and yellows that suggest both the faded colors of the past as well as the unsettling and unnatural events that lie ahead. The score by Felix Raffel and Hector Marroquin is spare but effective in heightening the odd mix of moods that swings back and forth between unexpected sexual tension and ominous occurrences.

Production company: Almost Famous Film- und Medienproduktion
Cast: Anna Grisebach, Benno Furmann, Vladimir Burlakov, Kai Ivo Baulitz, Gudrun Ritter, Michael Gwisdek
Director: Florian Gottschick
Screenwriters: Florian Gottschick, Carsten Happe
Producer: Anne-Kathrin Gliese
Director of photography: Jakob Seemann
Production designer: Ane Nicholas-Rodriguez
Costume designer: Elisa Cappell
Editors: Christoph Dechant, Ozlem Konuk
Composers: Felix Raffel, Hector Marroquin
Sales: Almost Famous Film- und Medienproduktion

No rating, 86 minutes