'The Voluntary Year' ('Das freiwillige Jahr'): Film Review | Locarno 2019

Locarno Film Festival
A small domestic drama with two fine performances.

German directors Ulrich Koehler and Henner Winckler co-directed this feature, which stars newcomer Maj-Britt Klenke alongside veteran Sebastian Rudolph.

A single father and an only child who just graduated try to navigate her increasing independence in The Voluntary Year (Das freiwillige Jahr), from German filmmakers Ulrich Koehler and Henner Winckler, co-directing here for the first time. What’s fascinating about this domestic coming-of-age story, a heady mix of quotidian comedy and familial drama, is that the daughter’s desire to emancipate herself results in her wanting to stay in the village where she grew up; her father is the one trying to push her to go do volunteer work abroad during a gap year — hence the title.

After making the cerebral dramas Sleeping Sickness (Berlin competition 2011) and In My Room (Cannes Un Certain Regard 2018), this is Koehler’s most accessible film in quite a while, harking back to work such as his feature debut, Bungalow (2002), another self-described "thwarted road movie." It also continues fellow director Winckler’s interest in strong female protagonists after his impressive young-mother portrait Lucy (2006).

Their first co-directed effort should see solid numbers when German broadcaster WDR, who commissioned the film, broadcasts it and has a good chance of penetrating streaming markets further afield. Despite its small-screen origins and modest scale, it premiered in competition in Locarno.

Urs (Sebastian Rudolph) is a doctor in a small provincial town in the Cologne area. His daughter, Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke), is old enough to drive — so at least 18 — but apparently not quite old enough to be able to make her own decisions. In fact, as The Voluntary Year progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that Dad wants to micromanage every aspect of Jette’s life even though he assumes he’s just doing his job as a father. This is quite hard on Jette, who, for example, doesn’t seem to have any specific reason to be against volunteering at a hospital in Costa Rica for a year except for the tiny detail that she’d be equally content to stay at home and hang out with her boyfriend, Mario (Austrian actor Thomas Schubert). 

The story, written by the directors, starts when Dad and his offspring are driving to the airport early in the morning and at the last minute decide to drop in on Jette’s uncle, Falk (Stefan Stern), who still has Jette’s camera, which her father thinks she should take along. Jette doesn’t think it’s that important — fretting over a camera feels like something only people from the pre-smartphone age would do — but her father insists. The scene that follows is unexpectedly funny, as Urs goes to great lengths to get access to the locked apartment, which drives Urs up the wall as he’s technically the owner and his brother is his renter. It’s small bits of information like this that suggest to what extent Urs is someone who feels the responsibility to look after his loved ones but also uses the power that gives him in ways that aren’t always entirely desirable or appropriate.

At the start of her gap year, Jette, played by newcomer Maj-Britt Klenke in a spirited performance, is at a crossroads. She has to deal with a fascinating paradox, as her father has decided for her that she needs to emancipate herself and see something of the wider world. (This part of the backstory could be a little clearer.) When she finally arrives at the airport without her father but with Mario, it’s a split-second decision that weighs in Mario’s favor. One of the best moments of the film simply shows her face after she’s finally made a triumphant decision all by herself, independent from her father. For dramatic effect, Koehler and Winckler even show Urs getting out of a cab in the background at the airport before Jette and Mario drive off in Urs’ Volkswagen van.

Jette and Mario’s relationship is vividly sketched if familiar. The spontaneity and naiveté of their relationship stand in stark contrast to Urs’ agonizing, almost secretive amorous rapport with Nicole (Katrin Roever), who is his assistant at his practice and who is still married to someone else. There’s also a sense Urs would love to leave everything behind but feels that he can’t do that as the village doctor and he’s trying to get his daughter to realize this dream of his for him.

Rudolph, who played the protagonist’s father in the German Netflix hit Dark, has arguably the most difficult role here. He’s a good guy in terms of his intentions and a bad guy in terms of how he goes about expressing the fact that he wants to protect and nurture those he loves. His performance is quite extraordinary, layered with hardship and hurt as well as tenderness and, very occasionally, warmth. But the true protagonist is, of course, Jette and it is up to her to finally make some decisions regarding her own life. This is even clearer in the original German title, as the German word for voluntary, freiwillig, literally contains the idea of free will. 

(Spoilers in this paragraph.) Cinematographer Patrick Orth (Cannes hit Toni Erdmann) shortens the shot lengths considerably here compared to his previous films with Koehler. He works more with traditional shot/reverse-shot rhythms than sequence shots, which is perfectly suitable not only for the small screen but also for the place in which a large part of the story is set: inside Urs’ Volkswagen, which they drive to the airport and which Jette and Mario then use to escape before finding their way back to their village. It’s a small, constricted place that will finally see them home, a fine metaphor for the journey on which Jette finds herself over the course of this modest but lovely movie. 

Production companies: Sutor Kolonko, WDR
Cast: Maj-Britt Klenke, Sebastian Rudolph, Thomas Schubert, Katrin Roever, Daniel Nocke, Stefan Stern, Margarita Breitkreiz, Helmut Florian Rupprecht, Hussein Eliraqui
Writer-directors: Ulrich Koehler, Henner Winckler
Producer: Ingmar Trost 
Director of photography: Patrick Orth
Production designer: Pelin Gebhard, Ivana Vukovic
Costume designer: Birgitt Kilian
Editing: Laura Lauzemus
Casting: Ulrike Mueller
Venue: Locarno International Film Festival (Competition)

In German, Spanish
86 minutes