Two Lives (Zwei Leben): Film Review

Beta Cinema
A rather serious drama about the double life of a German woman in Norway.

Germany's foreign-language Oscar hopeful is a story of past Nazi and Stasi secrets and stars Liv Ullmann and Juliane Koehler as mother and daughter.

A Norwegian family unravels when a complex piece of German history surfaces in their midst in Two Lives (Zwei Leben), writer-director Georg Maas' well-acted and rather solemn drama that’s loosely based on the novel by Hannelore Hippe.

This year’s foreign-language Oscar submission from Germany casts Norwegian legend Liv Ullmann and German star Juliane Koehler (from 2002 foreign-language Oscar winner Nowhere in Africa) as a mother and daughter in Norway whose relationship and extended family are shaken to the core by revelations brought about by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though indirectly a film that deals with WWII and its extended aftermath — which, in a terrible twist, provided fertile soil for the Stasi secret police of newly created East Germany — this is not a Holocaust film but rather a human drama about past secrets and identity that should appeal to an older and quite mainstream audience.  

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A small U.S. distributor could decide to acquire this with an eye to the film’s Oscar campaign, which should be facilitated by the fact it stars two actresses with some name recognition beyond their home countries. Two Lives opens in Germany Sept. 19.

The film falls roughly into two parts, with the first hour revealing that the life of Katrine (Koehler) is even more complex than the fact that she’s the child of a Norwegian mother, Ase (Ullmann), and one of the German soldiers who occupied Norway during WWII, which resulted in little Katrine being shipped back to Germany and being raised in a children’s home. She was finally reunited with her Norwegian birth mother after the war and a harrowing escape from East Germany.

In 1990, Katrine and her husband, the burly Norwegian captain Bjarte (Sven Nordin), have an adult-age daughter of their own (Julia Bache-Wiig) who has just had a baby, too. What her family doesn’t know (but audiences gets to see from the start) is that Katrine talks to mysterious people who call her Vera and that she made a secret trip to the German home where she grew up to look for one of the people that used to work there.

The catalyst that helps unravel the story is a handsome German-Norwegian lawyer (Ken Duken), who has asked Katrine and Ase to testify about their separation in Katrine’s youth, in a bid to get reparations for all the cases just like theirs that didn’t have a happy ending (many children of occupying German soldiers were never reunited with their local mothers, especially those that were shipped to what became East Germany, from where it became practically impossible to travel to the West).

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Maas, who adapted the novel together with co-screenwriters Christoph Toele, Stale Stein Berg and Judith Kaufmann (the latter also the film’s cinematographer), has structured the story in a way that gives audiences much more information on Katrine than the other characters have. This robs the proceedings of much of its potential suspense but Maas tries to compensate by trying to get audiences into the head — or at least on the side of ­— a morally complex woman with a double life.

This gamble doesn’t entirely pay off, as there’s a lot of information to be processed, especially for those unfamiliar with 20th century European history and politics, and audiences will be too busy putting all the pieces together to have much time to empathize with the protagonist. But after the first hour, which is essentially all setup, the last 30 minutes do finally bring a measure of tension and high drama as well as a clear sense of the psychological toll the events have taken on Katrine and on those around her, who must live with the realization that their family relationships are based on a lie but that the love, emotions and memories they shared are still true. The only false note here is the rather abrupt and random-feeling ending.

While Ullmann’s role is really a supporting turn, Koehler takes her starring role and runs with it and she’s ably supported by those around her. Both Koehler and Duken had to learn Norwegian for their parts but are believable as bilingual members of Norwegian society.

The scenes in the present have a very classical look, with slick, slightly saturated colors and smooth camera movements, while a few flashbacks are grainy, extremely saturated and handheld. Though not in any sense innovative, the score ably supports the proceedings before turning somewhat treacly in the home stretch.


Production companies: Zinnober Film, Helgeland Film, B&T Folm, Degeto Film, AppolloMedia, TV2, C More Entertainment, FUZZ
Cast: Juliane Koehler, Liv Ullmann, Ken Duken, Sven Nordin, Rainer Bock, Julia Bache-Wiig, Klara Manzel, Vicky Krieps
Director: Georg Maas
Screenwriters: Georg Maas, Christoph Toele, Stale Stein Berg, Judith Kaufmann, screenplay based on the novel by Hannelore Hippe
Producers: Dieter Zeppenfeld, Axel Gelgeland, Rudi Teichmann
Director of photography: Judith Kaufmann
Production designer: Bader El Hindi
Music: Christoph M. Kaiser, Julian Maas
Costume designer: Ute Paffendorf           
Editor: Hansjorg Weissbrich
Sales: Beta Film
No rating, 97 minutes.