'Hands of a Mother' ('Die Haende meiner Mutter'): Munich Review

Courtesy of Film Fest Munchen
Structurally unsound but affecting nonetheless.

Florian Eichinger's closing part of his trilogy on domestic abuse stars Andreas Doehler, Jessica Schwarz and Katrin Pollitt.

An almost 40-year-old doting father is reminded of his ugly childhood when his 4-year-old son is lightly injured while alone with his grandma in Hands of a Mother (Die Haende meiner Mutter), from writer-director Florian Eichinger. Turning the tables on the more familiar children-abused-by-their-father model, this rather serious family drama has to be commended for shining a light on a less visible form of child abuse — though the film does have a tendency to become heavy-handed in the flashback scenes, in which Andreas Doehler, the actor playing the father, also plays himself as a little boy at the mercy of the titular hands of his mother.

This odd stylistic choice and some structural problems aside, this is a solidly performed work that has been doing well on the festival circuit — it won the best actor and best director nods at the recent Munich Film Fest — and could parlay its accolades into some art house play. Hands is also the closing part of Eichinger’s trilogy about domestic abuse, after his earlier features Bergfest and Nordstrand, which will together make for an interesting proposition for festivals and cinematheques.

Markus (Doehler), an engineer, and his wife, Monika (Jessica Schwarz), have a young son, Adam. They are celebrating the birthday of Markus’s father aboard a small river cruise ship with their extended family. Apart from the fact that Markus admits that his mother is “dead” to him, things seem to be going well, until little Adam comes back from the bathroom with grandma Renate (Katrin Pollitt), Markus’s mother, and he has a cut on his head, which triggers memories of Markus’s childhood, when his mother abused him.

Though the underlying story is rather straightforward, Eichinger, who also wrote the screenplay, and editor Jan Gerold struggle to find the right way to lay out this particular narrative. The film opens with a shot of Markus and Monika in bed to which the film will circle back later, for example, though placing part of that scene upfront has no apparent storytelling benefit. The film is also rather artificially divided into chapters named after the characters — “Renate” is first, then “Markus” etc. — but since the point of view of the film always stays close to the male lead and those around him, this doesn’t add much either.

The screenplay is also coy about what happened in the past exactly, keeping how and how often Markus was abused hidden for part of the story in a way that feels more calculated for suspense than organic to someone slowly coming to terms with his past. And each time a flashback to Markus’s past is inserted in which Doehler, five o’clock shadow and all, plays little Markus, it takes the viewer out of the film, rather than drawing it further in. It’s never clear if Eichinger considered filming these scenes with a child actor too complex or risky (though it can be done; Mysterious Skin is a perfect example of how to film around these kinds of practical concerns). Whatever the case may be, the writing now doesn’t focus enough on the potential consequences of what happened in the past on the adult Markus, who’s in the scene as a child, to justify this incongruous choice. To further add to the confusion, there’s an occasional voiceover from Renate as a younger mother.

However, despite these structural issues, and they are many, Hands of a Mother impresses when it simply focuses on the family dynamics and drama surrounding abuse. This is because the acting is generally top notch, lived in and resonant without ever resorting to histrionics or melodrama. Doehler's Markus is, of course, the one who struggles the most with what has happened to him, but the film takes a much wider view, also taking into account what it must be like for a partner such as Monika, a son such as Adam, the mother in question, her husband (and Markus’s father), and the wider family including Renate’s siblings. The way in which Eichinger manages to suggest that a single act of deprivation can have a ripple effect across entire families and across time is insightful and one of the film’s strongest assets.

Seen the subject matter, it is no surprise that the general tone is rather heavy. A sequence in which Markus and Monika try to go to couples counseling to work out their issues — the surge of memories has repercussions on their intimacy as well — are serio-comic in their look at various shrinks’ incapacity or unwillingness to deal with this kind of abuse (which is unfamiliar to them as well). A few more scenes like these, which allow for the release of the constantly growing tension, would’ve made the darker side of the story more bearable for viewers as well.

Though a precise sense of place is much less of an element here than in either Bergfest or Nordstrand, cinematographer Timo Schwarz’s choice to start each chapter with an overhead shot of a landscape with a perfectly normal-looking home or neighborhood does help to visually suggest how this kind of abuse might occur everywhere. The use of shallow-focus also helps to gives the proceedings an appropriately claustrophobic edge even as Schwarz struggles in the film’s nighttime scenes, which lack clarity and detail in the darker areas. Other technical credits are modest but otherwise fine.

Production companies: Kinescope Film, Bergfilm, ZDF Das Kleine Fernsehspiel

Cast: Andreas Doehler, Jessica Schwarz, Katrin Pollitt, Heiko Pinkowski

Writer-Director: Florian Eichinger

Producers: Mike Beilfuss, Florian Eichinger, Matthias Greving, Cord Lappe

Co-producers: Rainer Koelmel, Wasiliki Bleser

Director of photography: Timo Schwarz

Production designer: Tamo Kunz

Costume designer: Maren Esdar

Editor: Jan Gerold

Music: André Feldhaus

Casting: Marion Haack

Sales: Media Luna New Films

No rating, 105 minutes