'One Breath' ('Ein Atem'): TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Beware of Greeks bearing children.

German director Christian Zubert returns to TIFF with a timely thriller about a Greek nanny who gets into deep trouble while working abroad.

A Trojan Horse of social commentary disguised as a fraught kidnap thriller, One Breath is a button-pushing Eurodrama that milks maximum suspense from every new parent's worst nightmare. The prolific German writer-director Christian Zubert, back in Toronto with a world premiere after the North American launch of his previous film Tour De Force here just one year ago, gives his two excellent female leads plenty of meaty material to chew on with a time-twisting, twin-track plot that switches POV midway through.

Filmed in both Frankfurt and Athens, One Breath plays like an allegory for the ongoing financial friction between rich Germany and impoverished Greece, a resemblance which is clearly intentional. The script is slightly marred by its preachy tone, some overly contrived plot twists and a weak third act. But this is still a well-crafted thriller with a built-in topical marketing angle courtesy of ongoing economic turbulence in the Eurozone. Sufficiently arty for festival play, but also gripping enough for modest theatrical potential, it opens domestically next month.

Elena (Chara Mata Giannatou) is a restless young Greek woman who leaves her overly controlling boyfriend Costas (Apostolis Totsikas) behind in Athens for the chance to trade poverty wages at home for well-paid work in Frankfurt. After a few false starts, she lands a job as a nanny for a well-heeled professional couple, Tessa (Jordis Triebel) and Jan (Benjamin Sadler), who have a cherubic baby daughter called Lotte. All the main players give strong performances, especially Triebel, who has the most emotional ground to cover.

Latent tensions crackle between the German couple, fraying the already fragile bond of trust between Elena and the volatile, demanding, diva-ish Tessa. Complicating matters further, the nanny has just discovered she is pregnant, almost suffering a miscarriage due to her frantic workload, and does not have legal health insurance for Germany. But all these minor pressure points are eclipsed by heart-thumping horror when Lotte disappears from her stroller in broad daylight after Elena briefly leaves her outside a food store. In the immortal words of Socrates: shit just got real.

Zubert's big stylistic trick is to freeze us in suspense while he rewinds the story building up to Lotte's mysterious abduction, this time from Tessa's perspective. Stressed at work and depressed at home, she appears far more sympathetic second time around, with more context and nuance. Thrown into meltdown by the loss of her child, she ignores police advice and books herself on the next flight to Athens in a desperate bid to track down both Lotte and Elena. But Greece is a brutal wake-up call, a place where sarcastic detectives and callous criminals have little compassion for pushy, wealthy, entitled Germans.

One Breath resolves itself a little too neatly, with a glib take-home message about the need for empathy and compassion between different people and cultures. How very original. The frenetic shooting style also jars at times with its over-reliance on hand-held camera jitters to invoke the raw, ragged emotions at play. But even if Zubert is not averse to melodramatic cliche, he still hits the emotional target more often than not in this superior nerve-jangler. The significance of that cryptic title is never explained, but lies in the fact that Greeks use the same word for both breath and spirit.

Production companies: Senator Film Köln, ARRI Media GmbH, View Master SA,

Bart van Gemert Filmproduktion, ​Bayerischer Rundfunk

Cast: Jördis Triebel, Chara Mata Giannatou, Benjamin Sadler

Director: Christian Zübert

Screenwriters: Christian Zübert, Ipek Zübert

Cinematographer: Ngo The Chau

Editor: Mona Bräuer

Producer: Ulf Israel

Sales company: ARRI Media World Sales

Rated 14A, 110 minutes

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