'24 Weeks' ('24 Wochen'): Berlin Review

24 weeks still 1 - Julia Jentsch - H 2016
Courtesy of Friede Clausz
A well-meaning movie of the week.

'Sophie Scholl' star Julia Jentsch headlines Anne Zohra Berrached’s pregnancy drama.

Tackling a hot-button issue with little nuance or ingenuity, 24 Weeks (24 Wochen) follows the difficult path chosen by a German couple when their unborn baby is diagnosed with Down’s syndrome and another more fatal condition, obliging them to ask the kind of questions that any expecting parents would hope to avoid.

It’s a powerful subject that’s handled by second-time director Anne Zohra Berrached in the most deliberate, on-the-nose way possible, making for a very TV-friendly movie whose decent performances can’t really compensate for such lackluster filmmaking. With both a strong social context and Silver Bear-winner Julia Jentsch (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days) in the lead role, the Berlinale competition entry could play well to local audiences but probably won’t find much overseas traction outside a few ancillary deals.

Astrid (Jentsch) is a newly pregnant stand-up comic who likes to talk trash about her home life, poking fun onstage at her longtime boyfriend/manager, Markus (Bjarne Maedel). In truth the pair seems to be genuinely in love, living it up with their young daughter (Emilia Pieske) in a modern suburban cottage where they’re often visited by Astrid’s chain-smoking if extremely helpful mom (Johanna Gastdorf).

But the happy pair is suddenly hit with a bombshell of bad news when they learn that their future baby has DS. Stepping back to assess the situation, Astrid and Markus quickly muster up their sangfroid, and a fair amount of humor, to face the prospect of raising a mentally disabled child. Then a second bomb drops when an ultrasound test reveals that the infant has severe heart problems requiring intensive after-birth surgery, forcing Astrid to consider the prospect of terminating the pregnancy and driving a significant wedge between the comedian and her significant other.

Focusing on the ups and downs the couple goes through as Astrid comes closer to term, Berrached and co-writer Carl Gerber present us with a pair of rather featureless characters who seem to have no apparent flaws until they’re forced to deal with so many grave, life-altering decisions. One would think that a popular comic would have interesting things to say about her predicament, but Astrid is no Amy Schumer and approaches everything with utter sternness, resulting in a number of tedious scenes where she and Markus endlessly talk things over with doctors, friends or each other.

The film’s press notes go into great detail about abortion laws in Germany and point out how Berrached cast real physicians and specialists to play themselves. This may explain why 24 Weeks often feels like a docudrama without any subtext or subtlety, even if the dilemma ultimately faced by Astrid — will she keep the baby or not? (cue the scene where she visits a church) — is certainly worthy of a movie, though perhaps one that offers something more than what feels like a routine retelling of events.

Jentsch is a good actress stuck in a part that offers little depth and an increasing amount of mental and physical pain, while TV star Maedel plays a compassionate if dull sidekick who comes to realize that a father is often powerless in such situations. Tech credits are polished if undistinguished, with much of the action captured via handheld close-ups and mediums, not to mention a few dreamlike sequences where shots of Astrid underwater, and her baby in the womb, are blandly merged together. 

Production companies: Zero One Film, ZDF/Das kleine Fernsehspiel, Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemberg
Cast: Julia Jentsch, Bjarne Maedel, Johanna Gastdorf, Emilia Pieske
Director: Anne Zohra Berrached
Screenwriter: Anne Zohra Berrached, Carl Gerber
Producers: Thomas Kufus, Melanie Berke, Tobias Buechner
Executive producers: Johannes Jancke, Tobias Ebner
Director of photography: Friede Clausz
Production designers: Janina Schimmelbauer, Fabian Reber
Costume designer: Bettine Werner
Editor: Denys Darahan
Composer: Jasmin Reuter
Casting directors: Nina Haun, Katharina Krischker
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Beta Cinema

In German
102 minutes