A Pact (Zum Geburtstag): Film Review

A Pact Still H
An engaging German thriller that slides off the rails in its latter stages.

Denis Dercourt (“The Page Turner”) directs this German-language production, starring Sylvester Groth (“Inglourious Basterds”) and Mark Waschke (“Barbara”).

In an unusual cross-cultural exercise that pays off decently, at least for an hour, French filmmaker Denis Dercourt (The Page Turner) hops across the border to Germany to write and shoot the taut psychological thriller, A Pact (Zum Geburtstag). Offering the rare case of a Gallic director making a movie entirely in Deutsch, this low key, well-acted suspense flick lies somewhere between Haneke and Hitchcock, and mostly convinces before jumping the shark in a third act that’s overstuffed with twists.

Released in Germany last September, and currently out in France, the modestly budgeted effort shows that despite the change in language, Dercourt still has a knack for spinning tense and intimate tales of manipulation (not to mention a fetish for piano playing, which features prominently in several of his movies, including this one.) But A Pact also treads too far into genre territory to be a pure art-house item, and will be predominantly seen in festivals and small screen engagements outside Europe.

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A prologue, set in East Germany in the early 80’s, shows stoical teenager Paul (Felix Kruttke) forging a love letter from Anna (Sinje Irslinger) to himself. Later, he uses it to convince Anna’s actual boyfriend, Georg (Aaron Koszuta), to break up with her, paving the way for Paul’s conquest of the young beauty, but not before he makes a pact with Georg to give him his girl back sometime in the future.

What seems like a careless, adolescent folly turns into a Strangers on a Train-style scenario when, 20-odd years later, Georg (Sylvester Groth, Inglourious Basterds) pops back into the life of Paul (Mark Waschke, Barbara), ruling over the investment bank where the latter works, and scheming his way towards Anna (Marie Baumer, The Counterfeiters) -- who’s now married to Paul, with two kids -- so that he can finally receive his end of the bargain.

Although that makes for lots of coincidences in very little time, Dercourt skillfully dishes out the intrigue in these early sections, channeling the suspense through Paul’s dual apprehensions of disbelief (at Georg’s course of action) and guilt (for having lied himself in the first place). Meanwhile, Georg plays his hand awfully close, appearing diabolical in one scene while helpful in the next, and never truly stating his purpose, even if he looks anything but well-intentioned.

Things come to a head when Paul invites his former friend to the vast country estate he recently bought for Anna. Soon enough, they’re all out hunting together, though the true menace in that sequence is not Georg but his long-time punk girlfriend (Sophie Rois, Enemy at the Gates), who has a taste for blood and heavy mascara, disrupting the couple’s placid lifestyle while also stretching the script’s credibility to the limit.

Although Dercourt tries to keep the guessing game going in the film’s second half, introducing Paul’s teenage daughter (Saskia Rosendahl) as another piece of the puzzle, his characters are unfortunately tossed aside in favor of plot mechanics, failing to give much else in terms of psychology and succumbing to a storyline that gradually slides off the rails. The closing reels are especially dubious in this sense, losing all the nuance and ambiguity that A Pact promised in its early scenes.

Despite such snafus, the actors maintain the suspense level throughout, and -- at least for someone who doesn’t speak German -- Dercourt seems to get by just fine in his non-native tongue, coaxing strong performances out of his seasoned cast. Tech credits on the €1.8M ($2.5M) co-production are good, with DP Matteo Cocco using a cold color palette to create an unsettling atmosphere, and regular composer Jerome Lemonnier providing a catchy piano theme that Anna performs live for her conniving guests.


Opens: Wednesday, Jan. 10 (in France)

Production companies: Busse und Halberschmidt Filmproduktion, MACT Productions, Cite Films

Cast: Mark Waschke, Marie Baumer, Sylvester Groth, Sophie Rois, Johannes Zeiler

Director, screenwriter: Denis Dercourt

Producers: Marcelo Busse, Markus Halberschmidt

Director of photography: Matteo Cocco

Production designer: Petra Barchi

Costume designer: Suzanne Sasserath

Music: Jerome Lemonnier

Editor: Hansjorg Weibrich

Sales agent: The Match Factory

No rating, 85 minutes