Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Home for the Weekend (Was bleibt)

HOME FOR THE WEEKEND (Was bleibt)               B+                   
Germany  (85 mi)  2012  d:  Hans Christian Schmid             Official site [de]

Anyone who has difficulty with family holidays can take heart with this film, especially all those repressed smiles during the Christmas season where emotional dysfunction is gushing out of every withheld thought, where people are afraid to say what they really mean for fear of ruining the festive mood.  This doesn’t go for the jugular like Vinterberg’s Dogma classic THE CELEBRATION (1998) or Desplechin’s sprawling black comedy A CHRISTMAS TALE (2008), but is instead a quiet and elegant chamber drama that focuses on the slow disintegration of an upper class German family of means.  Written by Bernd Lange, who wrote the last two films directed by Schmid as well, the film slowly chips away at the façade of well-mannered politeness, finding a wealth of material in an undiagnosed mental health problem from the family matriarch, Gitte (Corinna Harfouch), who for all practical purposes behaves normally in all social situations, but is heavily shielded and protected by her overreactive family, where one constantly has to watch what they say.  The film is slow to develop, initially appearing like any other family assembly, highlighting the arrival of the guests, each segment acting as introductory pieces, where Marco (Lars Eidinger) is seen arriving late to pick up his young son Zowie with an obviously frustrated wife Tine (Eva Meckbach) who’s been forced to wait, where they’ve been separated for 6-months but he hasn’t announced this news to his family yet.  On the train they accidentally meet Ella (Picco von Groote), who helps him calm his agitated son, and she turns out to be the girlfriend of his brother Jakob (Sebastian Zimmler) waiting for her at the train station.  Supposedly all one big happy family, they soon arrive at the immaculately modernized countryside home of their parents, complete with sliding glass windows opening to a spacious back yard, the kind one only sees in magazines.  It turns out their father Günter (Ernst Stötzner) is selling his publishing house, cashing in before the kindle and e-books phase take over, where he already has plans to travel to the Middle East to research and write a book of his own.  The harmonious mood is shaken when Gitte announces she’s off the medication she’s taken for 30 years, most likely for manic depression, suggesting she’s finally joining the human race, a revelation met with complete silence.  

One by one, they all rush to Gitte hoping to find out the source of this news, but she’s insistent upon giving it a try, failing to mention if any of her doctors are onboard, and no one bothers to call.  She’s a bit surprised not to feel her family’s endorsement of finally depending upon her own free will, something she hasn’t had the strength to use for half her lifetime, and by all indications she feels a relief off her shoulders, while the two brothers begin quibbling about who’s been neglecting her the most, as Jakob lives nearby with a struggling dental practice and looks in on her while Marco lives off in Berlin, himself a successful writer, but on the outside looking in, rarely visiting to see how she is.  While all are worried, the effect it has on the family is to showcase the anxieties and insecurities of all the others, who are suddenly seen by her in a different light, as she’s been too numbed by medication to see clearly, but now that she sees the extent they cover up and hide their protective thoughts, she’s outraged at their patronizing behavior, as if she’s some medical specimen in a jar that they can’t allow to break.  Her anger has a way of clearing the air, as it cuts through the haze of hypocrisy, but once people are allowed to speak more openly, they still remain distant strangers to one another, maintaining what has always been their comfort zone.  Marco acknowledges to his mother that it’s always been easier to smile and remain good natured, being the mediator for other people’s problems, as he is really hiding the ugly truth about his own relationship, something he is not proud to admit, perhaps using her condition as an excuse to keep from being more open, even with his own wife.  Jakob on the other hand is the one that shows actual signs of depression, worried about his finances, constantly doubting his own self-worth, despite having the most supportive girlfriend on the planet.  But instead of Gitte, who everyone worries about, they should probably worry about Jakob, who is easily the most emotionally distraught, having several awkward emotional meltdowns until he eventually leaves altogether, forcing Ella to fend for herself, but he arrives again in the morning with that sheepish tail-between-the-legs look. 

The filmmaker is much more interested in getting underneath the phony pretense, often resorting to wordless sequences that eloquently express the underlying discomfort, reflecting the habits people routinely fall back upon, often thoughtlessly, like a brotherly rivalry where one is more easily hurt than the other, always angry that the more successful brother is trying to show him up, resorting to pettiness and trivialities as a loathsome weapon they have both been forced to deal with all their lives instead of simply admitting their feelings.  By the time the father gets around to addressing his failings, including his longterm distance to his wife, Gitte has disappeared without a trace, simply taking the car and driving off.  Once people realize she’s gone, all the horrible possibilities start flooding through their brains, somehow expecting the worst.  They all go out and search for her, finding the car next to a large forest entrance, but all their efforts are in vain, finding no clues.  While this is a distinctly German family drama, what it’s been searching for all along is the emptiness within, becoming a counterpart to Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), where one of the female characters also turns up missing, a film that altered the visual look of cinema, but also explored the bored and meaningless lives of the rich and wealthy.  While Antonioni establishes his existentialist themes during their futile search to find the girl, Schmid expresses his family dysfunction before the character disappears, where they only end up blaming each other afterwards.  When Susanne (Birge Schade) arrives at the door once word gets out that Gitte is missing, she turns out to be Günter’s mistress for the past two years, as he was convinced his marital feelings were over.  This devastating piece of news casts a pall on the search proceedings, as the police are now out looking for her.  Both brothers are floored by their father’s deplorable actions, as now that their mother is suddenly gone, they feel a sudden unattainable closeness to her.  Schmid plays with wish fulfillment dream states and reality, seamlessly blending the two where the viewer is left to judge what they are seeing onscreen, where a chilling sense of eerie loneliness is suddenly cast in a mysterious light, as if shrouded in a surreal fog of mental anguish.  The original music by The Notwist beautifully underscores this contemplative journey, a poetic quest for that elusive place called home. 

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