Home for the Weekend: Berlin Film Review

Berlinale Film Festival Press Still Was Bleibt - H 2012
Gerald von Foris © 23/5 Filmproduktion GmbH

Berlinale Film Festival Press Still Was Bleibt - H 2012

How refreshing to see a family-in-crisis drama in which the usual angst and hysteria take a backseat to quiet perceptiveness and sensitivity.

Hans-Christian Schmid's film centers around a German family struggling with the mother's long-term depression.

BERLIN – An absorbingly detailed snapshot of a troubled family, Home For the Weekend (Was Bleibt) is distinguished by the smart psychological observation of Bernd Lange’s screenplay and the precision and restraint of Hans-Christian Schmid’s direction, which keeps the histrionics on a low flame even at points of maximum anxiety. Melancholy, affecting and tender without being sentimental, the German chamber piece benefits from sterling ensemble work and characters that are both specific to their European upper middle-class milieu and utterly relatable.

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The film is probably a little small and unshowy to break beyond the festival circuit, which is too bad. If this were an American indie with some marketable names, the performances, the assured filmmaking craft and the emotional integrity of the drama would no doubt draw attention. But it deserves to find a niche in specialized distribution.

At the center of the portrait is an intelligently contained performance from Lars Eidinger as Marko, an author in his mid-thirties who has been living in Berlin since college, happily removed from the lives of his family. He takes his son Zowie (Egon Merten) on infrequent visits to the boy’s grandparents in a leafy suburb outside Bonn, but hasn’t even told his folks that he and Zowie’s mother (Eva Meckbach) have been separated for six months.

As the title suggests, the main action takes place over a weekend when Marko’s parents are announcing big changes. His father Gunther (Ernst Stotzner) has sold his publishing house before the e-book market completely devoured it, and now plans to dive into his own book project. The real news, however, is that Marko’s mother, Gitte (Corinna Harfouch), encouraged by some success with alternative therapies, has stopped taking her medication after 30 years of treatment for manic depression.

That may look like the groundwork for a predictable scenario, but Lange’s sober, reflective script avoids going down obvious roads.

Responses to Gitte’s unilateral decision are colored by her history, by bad childhood memories and years of spousal volatility. Gunther is concerned about the crimp this might put in his plans for an imminent Middle East research trip. Marko’s brother Jakob (Sebastian Zimmler) also has issues given that his dental practice is in trouble and his finances are a mess, making him increasingly dependent on Gunther’s support. Only Jakob’s level-headed girlfriend Ella (Picco von Groote) and Marko have no real agenda in assessing Gitte’s situation.

Frictions are fueled by sullen Jakob’s resentment of Marko for running off to Berlin and shirking filial responsibility. As events take an alarming turn, Zimmler’s moody performance shows subtle but clear signals that he may have inherited some manic tendencies from his mother.

Just as the family members focus on Gitte, looking for signs of instability, so too does the audience become attuned to every nuance of her behavior. Harfouch is superb at conveying the resolute nature of a suddenly self-possessed woman determined to shake off a lifetime of anesthesia, and also her prickly annoyance at being jammed under a microscope.

In one lovely scene when Marko sits down at the piano, Gitte breaks into an amusingly double-edged song about a lifelong marriage, joined by Gunther in a moment that suggests serenity to come. But when they begin discussing her as if she’s not there, Gitte bristles at their patronizing attitudes, refusing to endure more of the kid-glove treatment that has been her lot for so long.

Anyone with experience of people affected by mood disorders will recognize aspects of the dynamic here. But Lange and Schmid are careful to sidestep the clichés of depression drama, eschewing the expected meltdown in favor of devastating steps taken off-camera.

More than Gitte’s illness, the filmmakers’ chief interest is in taking a calm, considered look at family relationships. We see evidence of the compromises and secrets, repeated patterns, shifting bonds and seemingly selfish choices that may instead be dictated by self-preservation instincts. Both the warmth and the frustrations of family life are on view. A heavier-handed director might perhaps have come down hard in judging unemotional Gunther, as does Jakob. But in Stotzner’s characterization, he is allowed a measure of decency.

This extended gaze beyond the traumatic events of the weekend and into the broader emotional fabric of the family’s lives is aided enormously by fine work from the cast. You never question that this is a group bound by blood ties and love, however difficult it may be to maintain those connections.

Economic use of music by German indie band The Notwist adds to the rewardingly subdued nature of the film, and Bogumil Godfrejow’s limber, mostly handheld camerawork encapsulates the keen balance of this satisfying drama between immersive scrutiny and thoughtful detachment.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Lars Eidinger, Corinna Harfouch, Sebastian Zinnler, Ernst Stotzner, Picco von Groote, Egon Merten, Birge Schade, Tom Zulbeck
Production company: 23/5 Filmproduktion
Director: Hans-Christian Schmid
Screenplay: Bernd Lange
Producers: Britta Knoller, Hans-Christian Schmid
Director of photography: Bogumil Godfrejow
Production designer: Christian M. Goldbeck
Music: The Notwist
Costume designer: Lisy Christl
Editor: Hansjorg Weissbrich
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 88 minutes