'In Times of Fading Light' ('In zeiten des abnehmenden lichts'): Film Review | Berlin 2017
Bruno Ganz stars in director Matti Geschonneck's bittersweet literary drama about a family of German Communists caught on the wrong side of history.
There are inescapable echoes of Chekhov in this elegiac ensemble drama about several generations of an East German Communist family gathering for a landmark birthday party, which premieres at the Berlinale this week. Adapted from Eugen Ruge's semi-autobiographical 2011 best-seller, In Times of Fading Light is not the first movie to deal with the collapse of the old Eastern Bloc, but it is one of the most even-handed and humane to date, acknowledging the personal grief and shame felt by even the most wrong-headed Stalinist zealot.
Featuring a host of seasoned stage and screen players, In Times of Fading Light was directed by Matti Geschonneck and adapted by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, both of whom grew up in the Communist East. There is something emphatically old-school about their shared creative approach with its its lyrical language, beautifully lit interiors and forensically detailed recreation of domestic life in the old DDR. While German-language territories will clearly yield the highest returns, this satisfying sense of high-caliber workmanship should boost modest prospects overseas, too. Domestic theatrical release is scheduled for June 1.
Condensing the century-spanning timeline of Ruge's novel, most of the drama in Kohlhaase's tragicomic screenplay unfolds on a single day in 1989, in a modest suburban house in East Berlin, shortly before the fall of the Wall. Family, friends and political comrades gather to celebrate the 90th birthday of Wilhelm Powileit (Bruno Ganz), an unapologetically hardline veteran Communist suffering the early stages of dementia. On the surface, all is cheerfully formal celebration. But behind the scenes, everybody but Wilhelm privately suspects that East Germany is cracking up.
Party guests include Wilhelm's long-suffering wife Charlotte (Hildegard Schmahl) and middle-aged stepson Kurt (Sylvester Groth), both of whom paid a steep price for dedicating their lives to the same ideological cause. But there are conspicuous absences, too, including Kurt's hard-drinking Russian wife Irina (Evgenia Dodina) and 32-year-old son Sascha (Alexander Fehling). Irina finally arrives in an inebriated state to break the shocking news that Sascha has fled East Berlin for the capitalist West, casting a shadow over the festivities and instantly panicking the assembled Communist Party officials, who leave the house in a comically hasty rush.
Playing considerably older than his 75 years, Ganz projects a seething, steam-blowing mix of rage, confusion and flinty pride as Wilhelm. There are pleasing reminders here of his powerhouse performance as Hitler in Downfall, plus bittersweet overtones of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, too, another overly controlling patriarch struggling to stay sane as everything he once believed in crumbles. Dodina's Irina is another magnetic screen presence, wounded and vulnerable beneath her alluringly trashy, spiky defiance.
Talk-heavy and character-rich, In Times of Fading Light inevitably feels a little stagey in places. The plot device of multiple family secrets all bursting open at once is an age-old dramatic contrivance, while Wilhelm's blind faith in an old wooden dinner table serves as a heavy-handed metaphor, especially when it collapses. Minor digressions into marital infidelity and a possible case of poisoning add textural richness, but with scant relevance to the main narrative. But such micro niggles do not dilute the overall sense that this is an expertly crafted and emotionally stirring remembrance of things past.