Sources of Life (Quellen des Lebens): Karlovy Vary Review

"Sources of Life"
Neither Heimat nor home run, but nonetheless a quite appealing multigenerational melodrama.

Moritz Bleibtreu and Jurgen Vogel star in filmmaker Oskar Roehler's German family saga that spans three postwar generations.

KARLOVY VARY -- A German family saga that spans three postwar generations and includes thousands of garden gnomes, Sources of Life is neither Heimat nor home run, though some of its parts are appealing, especially in the sweet and hopeful adolescent love story that closes the almost three-hour film.

This is a partially autobiographical tale for director Oskar Roehler (Agnes and His Brothers, the Houellebecq adaptation Atomized), who chronicles some three decades of West German history between the immediate postwar period and the late 1970s, as seen through the prism of three love stories over the course of three generations. Though some famous faces populate the film, including Jurgen Vogel as Germany's first industrial lawn-gnome producer and Moritz Bleibtreu as his literarily-inclined son, the film is too episodically structured and tonally too heterogeneous to convince throughout. Local audiences gave the film the cold shoulder when it was released earlier this year, though it was nominated for best film at Germany's national film awards and was an audience hit at the recent Karlovy Vary Film Festival. It should travel to more festivals before ending its days as a middle-of-the-road, three-part TV miniseries.

In 1949, German average Joe Erich Freytag (Vogel), who fought on the Nazi side during the war, finally manages to return home from Russia, where his wife, Elisabeth (Meret Becker), has looked after the kids with the help of her sister, Marie (Sonja Kirchberger), though the depth of their attachment -- perhaps brought on by forced self-determination during and immediately after the war years, something Roehler could've made more explicit -- is not immediately clear. In keeping with the times, Eli finally reconfirms to a traditional family model with Erich. Indeed, one of the writer-director's main indicators of the passage of time is how the male, female and family roles change as the years pass.

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The couple's handsome eldest son, Klaus (Kostja Ullmann), helps Erich set up a factory for the production of ceramic garden gnomes that become a hit in postwar West Germany. When Klaus has become an adult (now played by Bleibtreu), he's at university and has strong literary ambitions, though the girl he woos, Gisela (Lavinia Wilson), turns out to be a much more successful writer than the increasingly frustrated Klaus, who has problems not only recognizing Gisela's talent but also what this implies about his role in their relationship and the role of men in society in general.

Their offspring, Robert (Leonard Scheicher), tries to deal with the fact that his parents are headed for a separation and tries to reconcile this with his emerging feelings for Laura (Dutch thespian Lisa Smit), the sweet girl-next-door of his maternal grandparents, Hildegard and Martin (Margarita Broich, Thomas Heinze), who have taken over from their daughter where parenting is concerned after she literally exits the picture (though she has an impressive comeback scene very late into the proceedings).

In perhaps their purest form, themes that have often surfaced in Roehler's previous works are explored here, including how the post-1968 generation had to live with the burden of having been parented by people who not only knew the war but were perhaps on the wrong side, and how the subsequent emancipation of women was necessary but had a confusing and often castrating effect on men.

The material, however, is not always tonally coherent, with Hildegard especially veering toward overstatement on occasion. Though clearly the well-off woman is a larger-than-life character, her behavior tips over into farce, which undermines the otherwise dramatic to melodramatic tone. The screenplay fails to draw clear parallels (or contrasts) between the different generations and an explanatory voice-over from Robert is also occasionally awkward, especially when the character hasn't been born yet (events are shown in simple chronological order).

Acting is generally solid, and youngsters Scheicher and Smit especially pull off something of a miracle: Robert and Laura have the smallest arcs, but the actors manage to invest their characters with so much charisma that their tentative relationship -- and the pure sweetness at its heart -- are entirely believable and something of a relief after all the tortured earlier couplings. The couple's poetic dance in a mud puddle is a highlight, ending the film on a wistfully hopeful note.

Technically, Life is TV-ready.

Production companies: X Filme, Moovie, MS Filmproduktion, WDR, BR, NDR, ARD Degeto, Warner Bros.
Cast: Jurgen Vogel, Meret Becker, Moritz Bleibtreu, Lavinia Wilson, Lisa Smit, Leonard Scheicher, Kostja Ullmann, Ilyes Moutaoukkil, Sonja Kirchberger, Margarita Broich, Thomas Heinze
Director-screenwriter: Oskar Roehler
Producers: Stefan Arndt, Uwe Schott, Oliver Berben
Co-producer: Michael Suss
Director of photography: Carl-Friedrich Koschnick
Production designer: Eduard Krajewski
Music: Martin Todsharow
Costume designer: Esther Walz
Editor: Peter R. Adam
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 174 minutes