'My Little Sister' ('Schwesterlein'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Vega Films
Little sister is brother's keeper.

Francophone Swiss actresses and occasional directors Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond ('The Little Room') cast Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger as twins from a theatrical family in their sophomore feature.

Twin siblings from a German theatrical family get more than their fair share of drama at home in the Berlin competition entry My Little Sister (Schwesterlein) from Swiss directorial duo Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond. As in their feature debut, the Michel Bouquet-starring French-language drama My Little Room — they seem to have a thing for little things — a sterling cast makes up for screenplay weaknesses. The lineup here includes German cinema heavyweights Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger, only seven months apart in real life, as the twins and iconic Swiss actress Marthe Keller as their mother. On the basis of those names, this should find some traction on the international circuit, even if the script manages to be both predictable and something of a mess. 

Sven (Eidinger) is all of two minutes older than Lisa (Hoss), but the reason he takes up so much room probably has more to do with his sense of male entitlement than anything as insignificant as a couple of minutes of age difference. Before Sven got cancer, he was the star attraction at the Schaubuehne in Berlin, run by the brilliant director David (Thomas Ostermeier, the actual director of the Schaubuehne, who has directed Eidinger in countless productions). Lisa, who is a playwright who has written a few works for her brother, believes Sven needs to hit the stage again to get better, something David seems weary of — especially because the planned revival of Hamlet with Sven would mean over three hours of intense work onstage every night, including combat scenes, and David doesn’t want to put Sven’s health at risk. 

Lisa is clearly devoted to her twin, but her life requires her to play many other roles besides the movie’s titular one. She’s one of David’s exes. She’s the mother of two young kids (Linne-Lu Lungershausen, Noah Tscharland) and the wife of Martin (Danish actor Jens Albinus), a director of a fancy Swiss boarding school. She’s also the daughter of Kathy (Keller), who herself comes from the theater and thinks very highly of her extremely successful actor son but can’t understand the contemporary works her daughter writes and makes no effort to hide her disdain for Lisa’s work. 

The person Lisa isn’t allowed to be is herself. This becomes especially clear in a subplot involving the renewal of Martin’s contract at his school, which would keep the family in Switzerland for five more years — even though the couple had agreed to go back to Berlin, which is where Sven and Kathy are. But Martin doesn’t want to give up his cushy position in Switzerland for a situation in Berlin, where neither of them would be sure how they would make money, so he decides unilaterally to say “yes” to the offer. 

The screenplay, by the directors, keeps coming back to the idea of women being forced to define themselves in relationship to others while men are allowed and even encouraged just to be themselves. But this interesting — if hardly new — thought is completely undermined by the central premise of the story, which is that a sister has to deal with her gravely ill brother. Lisa has no other options but to help her sibling, so an exploration of how women are forced to define themselves only in relation to others is essentially rendered moot, because circumstances, and not people, are responsible for her having to look after him.

Tellingly, the title of the pic itself suggests that it sees its main character only in relation to someone else and as if to further drive home the point, the film opens and closes on Lisa doing things for her brother rather than for herself. Are we supposed to feel like Lisa doesn't want to be her own person despite being a successful playwright?   

Thankfully, the actors are very good. There’s a short scene in which Lisa breaks down at a coffee machine in the hospital that can’t have been more than a few sentences in the script. But Hoss turns even such a small moment into an acting master class. Even though practically everything the character goes through is predictable, she makes sure you feel her every note of resentment, disappointment and rage. Eidinger finds the right kind of fragility and anger for Sven and despite having less screen time than Hoss, his character still feels fully formed. Keller, too, does a lot with relatively few scenes, suggesting in a caustically comic way that a mother’s love is not a given — especially if the child wants to follow in a parent’s footsteps in terms of their career but then deviates from their habits and tastes. Albinus, in a rather thankless role, is also convincing, ensuring Martin comes across as both egocentric and not entirely unreasonable. 

The camera of Zurich-born cinematographer Filip Zumbrunn (Night Train to Lisbon) is very agile throughout. Zumbrunn also holds his shots as each scene unfolds, so the actors have room for their performances to grow incrementally, as if they were onstage, which feels appropriate given the story’s ties to the theater world.  

Production company: Vega Film 
Cast: Nina Hoss, Lars Eidinger, Marthe Keller, Jens Albinus, Thomas Ostermeier, Linne-Lu Lungershausen, Noah Tscharland
Writer-directors: Stephanie Chuat, Veronique Reymond
Producer: Ruth Waldburger
Cinematographer: Filip Zumbrunn
Production designer: Marie-Claude Lang Brenguier 
Costume designer: Anna Van Bree
Editor: Myriam Rachmuth
Music: Christian Garcia-Gaucher
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)

Sales: Beta Cinema

In German, French, English
99 minutes