The Dead and the Living (Die Lebenden): San Sebastian Review

European History X? Barbara Albert's Austrian drama ambitiously tackles the painful legacy of the 20th century's darkest hours, with uneven but occasionally piercing results.

Anna Fischer and Itay Tiran co-star in Austrian writer-director Barbara Albert's Europe-hopping family drama.

“What did you do in the war, grand-daddy?” is the question that drives the heroine of The Dead and the Living (Die Lebenden), the fourth feature from Austrian writer/director Barbara Albert and her first since 2006’s ensemble-piece Falling. Delivering another female-focused examination of how the personal and political can awkwardly intersect, Albert now broadens her scope to include the tragic history of 20th century central and eastern Europe as viewed through the prism of one family’s experiences.

Premiering in competition at San Sebastian, this soberly ambitious Austrian-Polish co-production will likely reap respectable arthouse returns in German-speaking territories and enjoy its share of further festival play, without providing the international breakthrough that Lourdes (2009) afforded Albert’s production-company partner Jessica Hausner.

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Looking remarkably like Ellen Page from certain angles, the petite, gamine brunette Anna Fischer – best known in Germany for girl-gang vampire flop We Are the Night – is Sita, a Berlin student with family roots in Romania’s German-speaking Saxon minority. She’s always known that her beloved grandfather Gerhard (Hanns Schuschnig) had served in the SS during World War II, but around the time of his 95th birthday she learns that his role was more active and therefore more morally dubious than she’d been told.

Taking time off from her university work and her paying job as a TV researcher, Sita travels to Vienna, Warsaw and finally Transylvania, piecing together a story which the mentally deteriorating Gerhard is now unable to tell himself. But Sita does eventually discover direct testimony from Gerhard, in the form of videotape interviews recorded years before by her black-sheep uncle Michael (Winfried Glatzeder).

Although they arrive two thirds of the way through the film, Michael’s tapes provide The Dead and the Living with both their emotional crux and their narrative climax, as Gerhard opens up about his time at the Auschwitz death camp. Schuschnig, a stage performer making what is apparently a belated big-screen debut here, is quite stupendous in his delivery of Gerhard’s elliptical monologue.

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Having seen glimpsed in the early stages as a genially befuddled nonagenarian, the elderly actor suddenly elevates proceedings to a new level of intensity and emotional power – rather like Hans Lieven’s astonishing final-reel cameo as the fugitive Nazi sought by Sean Penn in Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place.

Albert’s primary concern, however, is striking the tricky balance between doing justice to the wide sweep of history at the same time as making us care about the emotional travails of her heroine: Sita just so happens to fall in love with a hunky, politically-engaged Israeli photographer, Jocquin (Lebanon’s Itay Tiran) around the time that she’s learning about her own ancestor's active involvement in the Holocaust.

The effectiveness of this crucial romantic subplot isn’t helped by the flat functionality of the picture’s occasional English-language dialogue – though Daniela Sea as Warsaw-based American idealist ‘Silver’ is lumbered with the most wooden of the lines. Slightly soap-style revelations concerning Sita’s defective heart, a congenital condition affecting her family’s long-suffering womenfolk, likewise chiefly serve to distract rather than illuminate. Such touches help ensure that what would could ideally have been a devastating combination of Michael Verhoeven’s The Nasty Girl (1990) and David Fincher’s Zodiac is instead only intermittently compelling.

Venue: San Sebastian - Donostia Film Festival, Spain (Competition), September 25, 2012.

Production company: Coop99

Cast: Anna Fischer, Hanns Schuschnig, Itay Tiran, August Zirner, Daniela Sea, Winfried Glatzeder

Director / Screenwriter: Barbara Albert

Producers: Bruno Wagner, Barbara Albert, Alex Stern

Director of photography: BogumiƂ Godfrejów

Production designer: Enid Löser

Costume designer: Veronika Albert

Music: Lorenz Dangel

Editor: Monika Willi

Sales agent: Films Distribution, Paris

No MPAA rating, 112 minutes