October November (Oktober November): Toronto Review

October November Still 2013 H
A beautifully played and impeccably lit and composed family drama. 

The latest from Austrian director Gotz Spielmann, whose "Revanche" was nominated for an Oscar, stars Nora von Waldstatten, Ursula Strauss and Sebastian Koch.

TORONTO – Two Austrian siblings who seem to have little in common have to come to terms with themselves, each other and the fact that their ailing father might soon be gone in October November, the first feature of Austrian director Gotz Spielmann since 2008’s Revanche, which was nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category.

Beautifully played and impeccably lit and composed, this high-quality family drama takes its time to introduce its flawed but human protagonists and then steadily builds toward a payoff that’s at once cathartic and artfully restrained. Actress Nora von Waldstatten, who plays an attention-craving star living the high life in Berlin, and Ursula Strauss, as her older sibling who stayed behind in rural Austria to look after their father, both give firecracker performances that bristle with jealousy and resentment as well as sisterly love and the duo more than do justice to Spielmann’s complex if never convoluted screenplay.

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This is prime arthouse fare that should appeal to not only festivals but also distributors of classy upscale features, especially in Europe but also stateside.

Sonja Berger (von Waldstatten) is an exceptionally beautiful and famous actress in her early thirties who lives in Berlin, where she moves between film sets, dinners and parties. Her older and plainer sister, Verena (Strauss), still lives in the Austrian country inn where the girls grew up, though the place’s practically closed. Verena looks after her husband (Johannes Zeiler), and their young son, Hannes (Andreas Ressl), as well as the aging paterfamilias (Peter Simonischek), who also still lives at the inn.

Already in the first reel, there’s a sense that Sonja’s and Verena’s lives might look idyllic from the outside but are anything but: Sonja’s slapped in a restaurant restroom by a woman (Judith Engel) who demands to know why Sonja had an affair with her husband (Samuel Finzi), while Verena’s secretly having an affair with the local doctor (Sebastian Koch) who’s looking after Verena and Sonja’s father. Straightforward but gracefully etched narrative symmetries such as these allow Spielmann to imply that, though the sisters lead very different lives, they also have a lot in common.

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After she wraps filming on what looks like a terrible project involving murder and romance, Sonja arrives for a visit at the family home in the Austrian mountains, where, to illustrate the title, leaves are starting to change color. She doesn’t come very often -- “when will we see you for real instead of on TV?” her father once asks her on the phone -- but after he’s had a heart attack, the workaholic Sonja moves into one of the numerous guest rooms and even, perhaps mysteriously inspired by a crucifix in the mountains that attracts wandering pilgrims that she runs into on a hike, turns down a film project.

The sisters smoke, drink, talk and bicker and harsh truths surface almost straight away, including accusations of envy and play-acting that hit home hard. “No one really knows who they are,” Sonja said earlier in the film, but Spielmann here suggests that, though close family members might not know or be able or willing to see themselves, they’ve got a pretty good idea what’s wrong with their loved ones.

A secret that their dying father wants to get off his chest before it’s too late initially feels like a rather clichéd narrative ploy but the director handles it delicately and it finally offers a kind of poetic justice for the way things have panned out for both sisters. Through the screenplay and the subtle but forceful performances, the film paints a complex and mature picture of how life can be given meaning through elements such as family, work, religion and love.

Apart from some incongruous camera movements during the father’s heart attack, cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, also one of the producers, again delivers sublime work, composing tableaux sculpted with soft and pure yet always natural-feeling light. Composer Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories is effectively used in lieu of a score, while the gorgeous outdoor locations offer a much-needed antidote to Berlin's immaculately white and personality-free interiors and Austria's oppressively dark rooms and corridors.  

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)

Production companies: Coop99 Filmproduktion, SpielmannFilm
Cast: Nora von Waldstatten, Ursula Strauss, Peter Simonischek, Sebastian Koch, Johannes Zeiler, Andreas Ressl, Sebastian Hulk, Samuel Finzi, Barbara Schnitzler, Judith Engel
Writer-Director: Gotz Spielmann
Producers: Antonin Svoboda, Martin Gschlacht, Bruno Wagner, Gotz Spielmann
Director of photography: Martin Gschlacht
Production designer: Katherine Woppermann, Susanne Hopf
Costume designer: Erika Navas
Editor: Karina Ressler
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 114 minutes.