'My Brother Simple' ('Simpel'): Film Review | Shanghai 2017

Courtesy of Panorama Entertainment
As emotionally effective as it is predictable.

David Kross ('The Reader') plays a developmentally handicapped young man in the latest mainstream confection from German director Markus Goller ('Friendship!').

A young man takes his mentally handicapped brother to Hamburg to search for their father in the comedy-drama My Brother Simple (Simpel). Directed with mainstream efficiency but not a lot of originality by Munich-born Markus Goller, whose Friendship! (2010) and Frau Ella (2013) were big hits locally, this German adaptation of French scribe Marie-Aude Murail’s novel casts Frederick Lau, the protagonist from one-take art house hit Victoria, as the lead and The Reader breakout David Kross as his titular sibling. The duo’s touching, fully inhabited performances elevate the otherwise rather conventional material, though its familiarity might actually be an asset when the film hits German screens in the fall. The feature premiered at the Shanghai International Film Festival and should appeal to other festivals looking for a crowdpleaser with its heart in the right place.

When their mother dies on the family’s rural farmstead, twentysomething Ben (Lau) is told that his brother Barnabas (Kross), who’s nicknamed Simple, will be put into a home as requested by their father, David (Devid Striesow), who lives in faraway Hamburg and whom they haven't seen in 15 years. Up until that point, Ben had cared both for Simple, who also is in his twenties but has the faculties of a 3-year-old, and for their bedridden mother. He cannot accept the decision, but since he has no legal authority over Simple, his only option is to travel to the big city and attempt to change their father's mind. What makes the long trip even more complicated is that Ben has no money and no choice but to take Simple along with him.

The road-trip template of the film that follows is not only familiar from countless other features but also from Goller’s own filmography; Friendship! and Frau Ella also revolved around people on the road. Dirk Ahner, who co-wrote the adaptation of Ella, also co-wrote this feature, and the screenwriters' work is certainly effectual but familiar to a fault, with the leads running into a large gallery of reliably quirky supporting characters before finally finding their father.

There's the Eastern European truck driver (Maxim Kovalevski) who helps them out and turns out to have a son with Down syndrome; the prostitute with the "expensive boobs" (Annette Frier) who tries to chat them up; and the kind nurse-in-training, Aria (Emilia Schuele), who allows them to crash at her house for a night or two. Aria is, of course, pretty and conveniently single. Her push-pull rapport with Ben is fun to watch but also very Screenwriting 101. On top of that, Aria’s closest male friend (Axel Stein) happens to get on like a house on fire with Simple.

And speaking of houses on fire: My Brother Simple resorts quite a few times to the most facile and unsurprising way to build tension, which is to have Ben leave Simple to his own devices for a moment when he needs to go and take care of something. Since Simple needs constant attention, things get predictably out of hand every time, despite Ben's insistence that his brother stay put and not talk to anyone. Goller here occasionally strays into near-farcical territory, which doesn’t quite jibe with the more realistic, heart-on-its-sleeve tone of the rest of the material. And some suspension of disbelief is definitely required when he leaves his brother alone again after the latest disaster. 

What keeps the film watchable is that the bond between the brothers feels real, but they are also credibly sketched as separate individuals. Lau turns Ben into a caring but also a somewhat prematurely tragic figure who has been a caregiver for so long he hasn’t noticed he’s never had a real childhood or any needs of his own. His part is certainly the less showy of the two leads, but the actor's work is at least as strong as Kross’ performance, which manages to be moving despite all the character’s tics and the non-politically correct nickname.

In these PC times, it's hard to portray a developmentally challenged character in comedic-leaning material without being accused of making fun of his or her handicap. But thankfully, Kross, as in The Reader and films like Same Same But Different and Boy 7, does wide-eyed sincerity very well. He completely sells the character’s vulnerability and honesty as well as his easily distracted nature. The film’s rooftop-set finale might be hitting all the expected beats but there’s no denying its emotional effectiveness.

Technically, Goller doesn’t reinvent the wheel, relying on many of the same ingredients that make the films of compatriots Til Schweiger and Matthias Schweighoefer (the latter not only a director but also the star of two of Goller’s previous features) irresistible to German audiences. The countless montage sequences set to Anglophone soft-rock songs, the guitar-driven score stuck somewhere between pensive and dreamy, and the highly polished camerawork all mark this as a film that wants to give audiences what they expect when they come to see a German mainstream entertainment.

Production companies: Letterbox Filmproduktion, Amalia Film, C-Films, ZDF
Cast: David Kross, Frederick Lau, Emilia Schuele, Ludger Pistor, Devid Striesow, Annette Frier, Anneke Kim Sarnau, Maxim Kovalevski
Director: Markus Goller
Screenplay: Markus Goller, Dirk Ahner, based on the novel by Marie-Aude Murail
Producer: Michael Lehmann
Director of photography: Ueli Steiger
Production designer: Zazie Knepper
Costume designer: Ramona Klinikowski
Music: Andrej Melita

Editor: Tina Freitag
Casting: Emrah Ertem
Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival
Sales: Global Screen

In German
113 minutes

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