Counterparts: Film Review

The feature debut of young Cologne director Jan Bonny, the film's strengths and weaknesses are deeply entangled. While the acting is good, there is practically zero character development.

MUNICH -- In "Counterparts," the feature debut of young Cologne director Jan Bonny that recently screened at the Munich Filmfest, the film's strengths and weaknesses are deeply entangled. While the acting is good -- especially when it needs to be, during chillingly matter-of-fact scenes of domestic violence -- there is practically zero character development. The main problem is that "Counterparts" completely fails to create a sense of suspense, which will most likely condemn it to a short art house run in German-speaking territories and brief festival exposure.

There are other good points that somehow also end up as problems. The Dogma-style cinematic discipline -- no musical scoring, no makeup, environmental lighting, all hand-held camera work by cinematographer Bernhard Keller -- creates a depressingly truthful sense of how everyday and common this family tragedy can be. Yet many crucial moments are played with the main actor's back to the camera, so it is almost impossible to identify with what the characters are going through.

The trouble starts with the script, which Bonny co-wrote with Christina Ebelt. While it's not difficult to accept Bonny's twist on the domestic violence problem -- and it's not giving away much to reveal that it is the wife who is beating the husband -- the background of her frustration and his emotional helplessness is too pat and easy.

The wife, grade school teacher Anne (Victoria Trauttmannsdorff), has a domineering, hypercritical father (Jochen Striebeck), and her police officer husband Georg (Matthias Brandt) needs to please everyone. These two points are elaborated again and again when one or at most two mentions would have sufficed.

So a ranking policeman is being physically abused on a regular basis by a schoolteacher, but there's no wondering about how it's all going to end because Bonny makes it clear early on that it never will. Not all films have to result in a happy ending for the main character, but there at least has to be a struggle for triumph to engage the audience's emotions even if victory remains forever out of reach.

Given the rich psychological and explosive plot possibilities of the basic situation Bonny has given us, "Counterparts" steadfastly refuses to make the most of itself.

A Heimatfilm production in association with WDR/Cologne and Film Foundation
Director: Jan Bonny
Screenwriters: Jon Bonny, Chrstina Ebelt
Producer: Bettina Brokemper
Director of photography: Bernhard Keller
Music: Sonoton
Costume designer: Frauke Firl
Editor: Stefan Stabenow
Cast: Victoria Trauttmannsdorff, Matthias Brandt. Wotan Wilke Moering
Denise: Susanne Bormann, Hans Josef: Jochen Striebeck
Not rated, 100 minutes

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