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In Adam & Evelyn (Adam und Evelyn), a couple from East Germany see their 1989 summer holiday plans unexpectedly align with a wave of East Germans hoping to escape into the west across the Austro-Hungarian border. Based on the novel by Ingo Schulze, this feature adaptation from writer-director Andreas Goldstein and co-writer, cinematographer and editor Jakobine Motz initially plays things straight before finally underlining the absurdity of living in the twilight days of the German Democratic Republic. But the film’s first two acts are too emotionally uninvolving and detached to turn this into a feature with possible crossover appeal, leaving it likely confined to arthouse audiences in Mitteleuropa and the occasional festival slot. It premiered in Venice as part of the Critics’ Week.
Adam (Austrian actor Florian Teichtmeister) and Evelyn (East Berlin-born actress Anne Kanis) live in small, seemingly idyllic Eastern European town with cobbled streets lined with decent homes with huge gardens. Evelyn is a waitress and Adam a tailor for women, as well as — in his free time — an avid photographer of the female form. His wandering eye and her jealousy cause Evy to finally leave for their planned holidays with friends instead of Adam.
But Adam does seem to realize Evelyn is the one for him, so he takes his baby-blue,1961 Wartburg and decides to also drive to Lake Balaton in Hungary, where his girlfriend is already enjoying the sun with her colleague, Simone (Christin Alexandrow), and the handsome Michael (Milian Zerzawy), a family member from West Germany. Along the way, Adam helps smuggle a German woman (Lena Lauzemis) across the German-Hungarian border without thinking too much about what he’s doing.
Snippets from broadcasts, including at the very start of the film over a black screen, have already revealed that many East Germans have amassed in embassies in several communist states in the hope they will be able to travel to western Europe, though the discontent that made them leave their homeland is not felt at all by Adam, who likes his job, the modest home he inherited from his dad, the paradisiacal backyard and his photography hobby.
Evelyn, it emerges, would like to leave but the reasons for this aren’t much articulated, which is one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. Indeed, there’s a sense that, especially in the first two acts, the characters and their motivations always remain at a certain remove, something that’s reinforced by the arid quality of the dialogue and the rather aloof mise-en-scene, which frequently shows the characters in their surroundings as if in tableaux. (The colors, however, seem to have been inspired by a Polaroid fixation.) What is even stranger is that, while Goldstein and Motz generally make a concerted effort not to pin their characters and their desires and motivations down too much, there are a few moments that are so literal they take the viewer out of the story completely. One is the film’s more-than-casual fixation with 1961, the year the wall went up and Evelyn was born. But even more grating is a late scene in which Adam reads Evelyn the forbidden fruit passage from Genesis while she eats fruit from the West. The whole sequence is so on-the-nose that it is laughable.
(Spoilers ahead.) Intentional laughter, on the other hand, will greet the film’s most amazing conversation, which involves Evelyn and a Western pen pusher (Bernhard Shuetz) who tries to understand the events that finally lead to the couple’s escape from Hungary. This question leads Evelyn to explain all the previous events the film has shown. Condensed into only a few sentences, what previously seemed rather ordinary and logical suddenly takes on increasingly absurd and implausible dimensions, with everything that has come before sounding like something that’s literally unbelievable.
Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, viewers might wonder whether the first two acts’ detached nature was thus intentional. This kind of tonal and structural gimmick, however, works better in short films, as at feature length the viewer still has to sit through over an hour of rather commonplace goings-on — since any kind of emotional identification with these unknowable characters is hard — before getting to the scene that turns everything onto its head with a new perspective.
Technically, this is a modest period piece that tends to stress the idyllically bucolic side of life behind the Iron Curtain, something that contrasts sharply with the constantly aired news items about people desperate to leave their Heimat and go West. While it is clear that the intention of Goldstein, Motz and perhaps also Schulze, who were all born in the GDR, is to offer a different look at life in East Germany, it is very hard to understand, at least in this adaptation, what it exactly is they want to say beyond the fact that some people didn’t really want to leave and didn’t dream of a Western world where everything would be perfect (something it clearly never was or ever will be).
Production company: Majade Fiction, Cine Plus, ZDF/3 Sat
Cast: Florian Teichtmeister, Anne Kanis, Lena Lauzemis, Milian Zerzawy, Christin Alexandrow
Director: Andreas Goldstein
Screenplay: Andreas Goldstein, Jakobine Motz, based on the novel by Ingo Schulze
Producer: Heino Deckert
Director of photography: Jakobine Motz
Production designer: Verena Barros de Oliviera
Costume designer: Teresa Grosser
Editor: Jakobine Motz
Music: Lars Voges
Sales: Pluto Film
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
In German, Hungarian
No rating, 95 minutes
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