'Lara': Film Review

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
An engaging put-down that blossoms into complexity.

Corinna Harfouch plays a mother out of hell in Jan Ole Gerster’s award-winning portrait of a bitter woman envious of her son’s musical talent.

What happens to a stage mother gone bad? Jan Ole Gerster’s accomplished sophomore film Lara shows the icy fate awaiting a talented pianist who, having transferred her ambitions to her son with martinet ferocity, finds herself excluded from his life and success. Lara is a drama that often borders on farce as we watch the insanely clever lengths to which the embittered mom, who has just turned 60, will go to undermine her son’s self-confidence on the eve of his big concert. The pic won the special jury award at Karlovy Vary, and Corinna Harfouch (Downfall) received best actress kudos for her gratingly realistic portrait of Lara Jenkins. Both a crowd-pleaser and a critic-teaser, it is featured this month in global festivals from El Gouna to Chicago and the Hamptons.

Though very different in tone from Gerster’s breakout debut A Coffee in Berlin, a black-and-white indie about a charming slacker who makes unemployment a way of life, the confident, never arty filmmaking has the same kind of audience accessibility. The low-budget Coffee overturned the German film establishment with a wave of local wins, powered by Tom Schilling in the main role. Here, Schilling reappears in the guise of Lara’s nervous son Viktor, whose chronic insecurity over his talent has obvious roots in his mother.

But this is very much Lara’s story, and Gerster risks all making such a negative character the centerpiece. She’s a retired civil servant whose colleagues remember her with a shudder. The harried younger woman who has replaced her in the boss’ chair hesitantly asks how she managed to make everyone in the office respect her. Lara coolly replies it was because she didn’t care a whit about her job, but we infer she liked cornering people and bludgeoned them into submission.

What she really cares about is music, something that gradually emerges in Blaz Kutin’s carefully calibrated screenplay. A key scene is her harassment of a young boy who is studying piano with her old professor, which gives some idea of how she bullied Viktor into practicing until he dropped with emotional blackmail. Another sterling moment is her revenge on a sweet violinist who introduces herself as Viktor's girlfriend.

Lara spends her birthday acting oddly, with some puzzling business about switching dresses that is never sufficiently explained. At the concert hall, she buys up the few remaining tickets to Viktor’s concert that evening, speculating to herself about the afterparty. She has not been invited — in spite of being his first piano teacher and, well, his mother.

The reason becomes apparent when she pays her aging mom a visit in a Hansel and Gretel house in the woods — Viktor has moved in with her without telling Lara. Sneaking into his room, she picks up some sheet music of the composition he has written, the one he is going to play for the first time that evening. As she reads it thoughtfully, you can see her mind planning mischief. And sure enough, in a nasty face-to-face with her son, she insinuates his theme is trite and he should stick to performing: “There’s so much great music in the world, why not play it?”

There’s a morbid fascination, as well as some smiles, in watching Lara at her demolition job, though one keeps wondering what motivates such malice. It's a question the film answers by and by. An extended sequence takes place in and around the concert hall, a world Gerster ably depicts as snobbish and pretentious, but also populated by simple music lovers scrambling for a ticket. Lara lavishly distributes the extras she has bought to those left outside the door, but pointedly avoids satisfying an eager young man her son’s age.   

Harfouch's protag displays false calm and diabolical cunning at playing mind games. As she stumbles out of a nervous breakdown intending to wreak the maximum amount of havoc, Harfouch subtly reveals her frail side and even the possibility of redemption. Schilling starts weakly but puts up a good fight behind the scenes at the concert struggling with his internalized mater. Among the well-cast supporting characters are Volkmar Kleinert (The Lives of Others) as her crotchety old prof, who reveals the source of Lara’s wounding, and Rainer Bock as her nice ex-husband shows us what she has lost.
  
Arash Safaian's score is very much in keeping with the film's idiosyncratic spirit, used sparingly until it's time to blast the audience away with racing fingers and masterful playing.

Production company: Schiwago Films
Cast: Corinna Harfouch, Tom Schilling, Rainer Bock, Volkmar Kleinert

Director: Jan-Ole Gerster
Screenwriter: Blaz Kutin
Producer: Marcos Kantis
Director of photography: Frank Griebe
Production designer: Kade Gruber
Costume designer: Anette Guther
Editor: Isabel Meier
Music: Arash Safaian
Casting director: Nina Haun
Venue: El Gouna Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Beta Cinema

96 minutes