Dreileben: Film Review

Uneven but ultimately rewarding trilogy of German TV-movies taking strikingly different approaches to the same crime-story.

One of the most talked-about world-premieres at Berlin, "Dreileben" is also one of the longest: a triple-bill of 90-minute movies, made by respected German writer-directors Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler.

BERLIN — One of the most talked-about world-premieresat this year's Berlinale, Dreileben was also one of the longest: a triple-bill of 90-minute German TV-movies running a total of five-and-a-half hours (with intermissions). Named after a fictional rural area in the east of the country where each of the films takes place, the project arose from e-mail discussions between a trio of respected German writer-directors, Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler.

The result (to be aired on German TV this fall) is three separate though linked takes on the same manhunt story, ideally suited to small-screen exposure over successive nights, either broadcast or via a DVD box-set. Though unusual and ambitious in conception and execution, Dreileben is by no means without precedent. The most recent parallels include Lucas Belvaux's Belgian Trilogy (2002), Channel 4 UK's Red Riding (2009), and Lars Von Trier's ongoing Advance Party experiment (which has so far yielded Andrea Arnold's Red Road and Morag McKinnon's Donkeys).

While decidedly uneven — Graf's Don't Follow Me Around (the only one shot on film) is the weakest, Hochhäusler's excellent One Minute of Darkness by some way the most accomplished — overall Dreileben (literally "three lives") emerges as more than the sum of its parts. Adventurous festivals may emulate the Berlinale and screen the films in one marathon sitting; alternatively, programmers might prefer to scatter them across their schedules.

Arguably the most influential of post-Reunification German film-makers, 50-year-old Petzold (The State I Am In; Yella; Jerichow) is also the most internationally renowned Dreileben auteur. His DV-shot contribution Beats Being Dead (Etwas Besseres als den Tod).a twisty, fairtytale-inflected study of teenage love, is a little disappointing by his own high standards. But in its quizzically Hitchcockian exploration of psychological/emotional complexities within a genre format, it's unmistakably a Petzold movie.

Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) is a happy-go-lucky teen working as an intern at a quiet countryside clinic and involved in an on-off courtship with Sarah (Vijessna Ferkic), pretty daughter of the institution's chief surgeon (Rainer Bock). But when he meets Bosnian refugee Ana (Luna Mijovic) a more fiery romance quickly develops against the backdrop of a police-search for convicted murderer Molesch (Stefan Kurt). Molesch escaped - with the hapless Johannes' inadvertent assistance - while "visiting" with his deceased mother at the hospital's mortuary.

All isn't what it seems, however — a recurring theme across Dreileben is the unreliability of appearances — and Johannes' behavior provides unexpected (and unwelcome) surprises for Ana and audience alike. Indeed, the protagonist's characterization is the main problem with Beats Being Dead, third-act developments fitting awkwardly with what's gone before. The finale nevertheless packs a punch with a skillfully-choreographed jolt, followed by a caustically ironic coda that showcases Petzold's flair with classic songs (Julie London's Cry Me A River).

Eight years Petzold's senior, Graf is a respected figure among his German peers. His varied résumé comprises TV-movies and serials, and occasional features (A Map of the Heart). Feeling very "small-screen" in its look and approach, his Don't Follow Me Around (Komm mir nicht nach) is jarringly different in tone from the other two Dreileben movies, which are more downbeat and focused.

Here, the manhunt serves as pretext to take criminal-psychologist Jo (Jeanette Hain) away from home and stay with long-time best friend Vera (Susanne Wolff), who resides near Johannes' workplace. Scriptwriters Graf and Markus Busch alternate between policier material — as Jo, helped/hindered by corrupt local cops, ingeniously tracks down her man — and talky domestic passages where Jo and Vera reminisce about a boyfriend they unwittingly "shared" years before. Wine-fueled conversations are played out at unrewarding length; the manhunt scenes, conversely, are excessively brisk and choppy. The (implausibly easy) capture of Molesch is presented almost as an afterthought, via narrated stills.

Graf struggles to integrate a streak of off-beat humor within essentially serious material. The story-strands only occasionally and arbitrarily come together, as if the Jo/Vera business was being shoehorned into the darker template established by the other two movies. Indeed, the most effective elements are perky book-ending sequences featuring Jo's young daughter Lucinda (Malou), an adorable moppet who steals her every scene.

There's also a key child-performer in Hochhäusler's One Minute of Darkness: Paraschiva Dragus, who plays the little girl who befriends Molesch during his time on the run. Briefly glimpsed in Beats Being Dead and Don't Follow Me Around,the escaped convict moves front-and-center here.

In the first two Dreileben movies, Molesch comes across as a psychotic boogeyman. As Hochhäusler and co-scriptwriter Peer Klehmet reveal, however, Molesch is really more hunted than hunter: lost in Dreileben's forests — where he encounters a fellow "runaway" Cleo (Dragus) in scenes reminiscent of James Whale's Frankenstein — suffering from educational subnormality, emotional trauma and mental illness.

He might even be innocent of the murder of which he'd been convicted some five years before, as this verdict depended on circumstantial evidence involving a closed-circuit video-camera (a gap during one crucial recording provides Hochhäusler with his evocative title.) The resulting update of Hitchcock's favorite "transference of guilt" theme is given extra dimension as we follow veteran cop Marcus (Eberhard Kirchberg), deploying unorthodox methods to belatedly unearth the facts.

Slow-burning One Minute of Darkness (Eine Minute Dunkel) is chiefly concerned with atmospheric investigations of place and the probing of a disturbed personality. Punctuated with moments of droll humour and touching poignancy, the film weaves its alluring, surprisingly suspenseful spell with assistance from a rumbling, bass-heavy score and pin-sharp digital cinematography courtesy of Germany's most reliably excellent DP, Reinhold Vorschneider (In the Shadows).

A sometime film-critic, 38-year-old Hochhäusler (The City Below) has quickly emerged as one of his nation's most promising younger directors. One Minute of Darkness amply confirms and consolidates that reputation, wrapping up the slightly cumbersome Dreileben on a triumphant and haunting note. Indeed, the closing seconds are perhaps the finest in the whole project — beautiful, chilling and tragically ironic.

Venue: Berlin (Forum/Panorama)
Production company: Schramm Film Koerner & Weber (in association with Bavarian Broadcasting)
Cast: Jacob Matschenz, Luna Mijovic, Vijessna Ferkic, Rainer Bock, Konstantin Frolov, Florian Bartholomäi, Stefan Kurt
Director, screenwriter: Christian Petzold
Producers: Florian Koerner von Gustorf, Michael Weber
Director of photography: Hans Fromm
Production designer: K D Gruber
Music: Stefan Will
Costume designer: Anette Guther
Editor: Bettina Böhler
Sales: Bavarian Broadcasting, Munich
No rating, 90 minutes

Venue: Berlin (Forum/Panorama)
Production companies: BurkertBareiss; Degeto Film.
Cast: Jeanette Hain, Susanne Wolff, Mišel Matičević, Lisa Kreuzer, Rüdiger Vogler, Anja Schiffel, Malou
Director: Dominik Graf
Screenwriters: Dominik Graf, Markus Busch
Producers: Gloria Burkert, Andreas Bareiss, Sven Burgemeister
Director of photography: Michael Wiesweg
Production designer: Claus-Jürgen Pfeiffer
Costume designer: Barbara Grupp
Editor: Claudia Wolscht
Sales: BurkertBareiss, Munich
No rating, 89 minutes

Venue: Berlin (Forum/Panorama)
Production companies: Heimatfilm; WDR
Cast: Stefan Kurt, Eberhard Kirchberg, Imogen Kogge, Holger Doelmann, Paraschiva Dragus, Timo Jacobs, Joan Pascu
Director: Christoph Hochhäusler
Screenwriters: Christoph Hochhäusler, Peer Klehmet
Producer: Bettina Brokemper
Co-producers: Gebhard Henke, Frank Tönsmann
Director of photography: Reinhold Vorschneider
Production, costume designer: Renate Schmaderer
Editor: Stefan Stabenow
Sales: Bavaria Film International, Munich
No rating, 94 minutes