9 Lives -- Film Review

Berlin runaways documentary takes a strikingly original approach to familiar material.

VIENNA -- Voices from the street are given ample space to be heard in Maria Speth’s "9 Lives" ("9 Leben"), a bold and formally audacious treatment of ever-topical themes of homelessless, family dysfunction and troubled youth. The title is a reference to the lucky escapes proverbially enjoyed by cats.

The prize for Best German Documentary at DOK Leipzig, where the picture world-premiered shortly before its Viennale screening, may prove the first among numerous festival awards for this fresh and compelling example of boundary-pushing non-fiction. TV play is also a given.

Speth's arresting technique is evident from the very start: Rather than the typical fly-on-the-wall, on-location style that documentaries on such subjects usually adopt, her seven subjects are interviewed in a bare, white-walled studio. The results, which present the speakers in a starkly flattering light, are relayed in crisp monochrome images courtesy of Reinhold Vorschneider's carefully-framed cinematography. The contrast with Vorschneider's slick work on Thomas Arslan's current outstanding thriller In the Shadows — shot in moody, downbeat color on 35mm — could scarcely be more extreme, showing off the veteran cinematographer’s impressive range.

But whereas 9 Lives' stark visual stylization is an inescapable element in its impact, this chiefly serves to concentrate our attentions on the speakers and their often-harrowing testimonies. As they recount their tales of often truly grim woe (alcoholism, drugs, parental suicide), we discover how they ended up finding an ad-hoc sense of community in Germany's famously tolerant capital. (Few are native Berliners.) "The street isn't the nicest place, but it's better than home," one remarks in what becomes a familiar refrain.

The five females, age-range from 16 to mid-20s, all speak solo. The two men — best pals Toni (a sharp-dressing 1920s jazz fanatic) and Krummel (a nervy, black-clad goth -- "I long for darkness") — are usually interviewed together. The latter pair, both musicians, also contribute tuneful interludes with their band, breaking up the succession of talking heads.

They may have done their fair share of sleeping under the stars, Speth implies, but these are talented, articulate individuals with opinions and idiosyncrasies, "just like normal people," even if many would at first glance dismiss them as layabouts, punks or spongers who don't have a future. 9 Lives is very much about second, third and even fourth glances.

Fluidly edited by Speth herself, the film marks a belated and promising feature-documentary debut at 43 after acclaimed fictional works such as 2007's Madonnas. The picture is evidently the product of a strong bond of trust between the director and her subjects. Off-camera questions are occasionally heard, but for the most part these are tough little soliloquies, gritty and flinty, with a welcome seam of hard-knock humor that ensures proceedings never become too bleak or depressing.