Stopped on Track (Halt auf Freier Strecke): Cannes Review

Peter Rommel Productions
An all-to-accurate portrayal of death by cancer.

Andreas Dresen's film, about a cancer victim, is a tough slog through the process of physical and mental deterioration.

As much as one may admire the effort taken to present death by brain cancer in a realistic, unsentimental and dignified manner in Andreas Dresen’s Stopped on Track (Halt auf Freier Strecke), the fact remains it’s still a movie about death by brain cancer. And at Christmas time to boot. Yes, you admire the movie but do you want to subject yourself to this when bad times, ill heath and death itself await us all?

You might actually if a movie offers a startling insight into the process or a flight of metaphysical fancy that takes death to another realm where you can consider this ultimate life passage in a new light. But the director, whose previous films have given audiences insight into the characters, mind sets and foibles of eastern Germans after the Wall came down, brings nothing startling or metaphysical to his movie.

There are occasional moments that come close: The cancer victim, very well-played by Milan Peschel, imagines his tumor as a guest on a TV talk show and another time a radio news bulletin seems to report on the growth of said tumor. There’s a good joke about a doctor with two pieces of bad news for a patient and funny developments such as the need to post stickie notes about the toilet’s location and his family’s first names on foreheads to jokingly remind poor dad of these facts.

But mostly this movie is a tough slog through the awful process of physical and mental deterioration that is the consequence of this particularly awful disease.

Before the film’s Cannes debut, Dresen told the audience the film was completely improvised without a script. Strangely, it doesn’t feel that way at all as scenes are cleanly acted and the dialogue feel true and close to the bone. Bringing real doctors and health care professionals into the cast undoubtedly helped the actors playing the family and certainly gives a strong documentary flavor to every scene involving treatment and homecare.

Steffi Khunert is particularly good as the wife at wit’s end, portraying weariness and heartbreak mixed with flashes of anger that are thoroughly convincing. So too with the two youngsters, Talisa Lilli Lemke as the older daughter and Mika Nilson Seidel as the young son, who create characters unlike those one usually sees in “death” movies: These kids are still caught up in their own worlds and somewhat disconnected from their dad’s ordeal even though they understand what’s happening.

Dad takes a lot of video from his iPhone but nothing much comes of this, no video diary of a dying man — that would have been a cliché anyway — or a process by which the man can distance himself from his own suffering. The movie feels like its maker was continually searching for a key to unlock a philosophical raison d’être behind the movie but never really found it.

All technical credits are smooth and the lack of music is a welcome relief for such a subject.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: The Match Factory
Production companies: Rommel Film in co-production with Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg in collaboration with Arte/Iskremas Filmproduktion
Cast: Milan Peschel, Steffi Kuhrnert, Bernhard Schutz, Talisa Lilly Lemke, Ursula Werner, Mika Nilson Seidel
Director: Andreas Dresen
Screenwriters: Andreas Dresen, Cooky Ziesche
Producer: Peter Rommel
Director of photography: Michael Hammon
Production designer: Susanne Hopf
Costume designer: Sabine Greunig
Editor: Jorg Hauschild
No rating, 110 minutes