The three films of the Dreileben trilogy screen consecutively on Saturday at the New York Film Festival, and again over Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night.
The Dreileben (three lives) trilogy: three different directors take the same inciting incident and conclusion (madman escapes, hides out in forest, kills again, is finally captured) and emphasize as much or as little of that plot as convenient. Perversely, almost nothing in any of the three films enriches or demands the company of its companions. The results (emerging from a back-and-forth, began in 2006 and published in 2007, about the directors’ differing views on German cinema) don’t really complement each other; they stand alone, for better or worse. Mostly worse.
Christian Petzold’s opening installment Beats Being Dead generates suspense by concealing its intent until the final minutes: is it a story about an impulsive, unstable affair taking place against the backdrop of a serial killer’s escape, or is it a murder story waiting, slasher-style, to enter and carve up the love story? Both stories have their own form of dreadful suspense. Nurse Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) gets punched in the nose without warning in a gas station for looking at a biker’s girl; later, he falls asleep naked by the river’s shores and wakes up to find the same gang of creeps getting ready to party the night away. They scatter, leaving only topless pick-up Ana (Luna Mijovic) behind. Johannes takes her back to his place, lends her some clothes, and they begin a relationship on the spot.
Even before they enter his space, they’ve already got something on the other: Ana’s the girl who earned Johannes a bleeding nose, but he’s seen her giving a biker a blow job and taken her home without saying a word. Johannes works at a clinic while studying to be a doctor; Ana’s a Serbian immigrant with a hotel-maid job, so she’s ultimately got the lesser hand. They argue and have sex a lot; frequently they chase each other across a road, while the camera lurks creepily in the woods. We know Molesche (Stefan Kurt), the killer, is there; the fact that the camera lurks for so long on the periphery of a seemingly unrelated romance makes it even more unnerving.
Petzold could make a terrifying horror movie if he wanted to: there’s no moment scarier than the half-second before Johannes’ potential-future-father-in-law/boss Dr. Dreier (Rainer Bock) lunges from a tense stance into overwhelming hug. It seems that Johannes thought things were off with the doctor’s daughter Sarah (Vijessna Ferkic), who’s soon off to Berlin and can take care of all his expenses; this information—as late-breaking to the audience as it is to Ana—transforms a movie about a young couple with a not-unusual problem rarely considered on-screen (they’re having too much sex to get anything else done, even if it’s as necessary as going to work or studying for med school) into a love triangle with ugly implications. Johannes first alienates (and has to chase after) Ana by checking to make sure she hasn’t stolen money hidden inside his Gray’s Anatomy, but he’s ultimately much easier to buy. It sounds pat to call this a movie in which economic abuses hurt more than a knife to the stomach, but it’s true; even before that, as a portrait of sex-dazed coupledom on semi-permanent bedroom retreat, it’s riveting.
Petzold’s film gleams with antiseptic precision; Dominik Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around revels in warm, grainy 16mm, whose relative shabbiness underscores all the shoutouts to East Germany. Backgrounding the murderer almost entirely, the subject is the testy reunion between shrink Jo (Jeanette Hain), houseguest for the case’s duration of her old friend Vera (Susanne Wolff), now married to affably self-pleased writer Bruno (Micel Maticevic). While he sleeps, girlfriend bonding time slowly turns to memories of a long-ago semi-affair it turned out the two were unwittingly simultaneously having with the same man long before they became friends; they knew each other only as a shadowy other woman, subject of implacable denials. Meanwhile, Jo works on a case that has nothing to do with the murderer, leading to a crime finale that’s impossible to see coming.
The women’s romantic rivalry is played out naturalistically but without impact: their sessions or interactions never build to anything. The screenplay’s not bad: there’s much talk of post-reunification trauma done with more-or-less eloquence (“Here we have real socialism,” says Bruno poking at some wallpaper, “it crumbles on touch”), but all that fuzzy grain makes the film itself fuzzy-headed: when tensions should be rising personally and professionally, they’re jumbling into one big mushy center, where no element stands out more than any other and the temperature never rises.
Christian Hochhausler’s final installment, One Minute of Darkness, might be better entitled Christian Hochhausler Tries A Bunch of Random Shit and Hopes It Sticks. Where the first two films attempt in their variably effective ways to use the murder plot as a kind of counterpoint to (or ominous ambient hum that suddenly becomes louder than) the main narrative, One Minute’s eye is firmly on the killer, who accordingly does the things Frankenstein-monster-ish serial killers generally do when on the run: gently bond with a little girl, hide in caves and chatter like a hypothermia victim, look over old family photos and laugh manically, set stuff on fire. Meanwhile Marcus Kreil (Eberhard Kirchberg), a grim cop who, dammit, just won’t give up the chase despite doctor’s orders, spends much time tracking down threads in eccentric or downright illegal ways; he leaves an afternoon backyard BBQ to break into the murderer’s house and rummage through his stuff for hours.
Occasionally this threatens to get interesting: when Molesche rolls around on his back in a berry patch, then starts interviewing himself about his daring escape, Darkness seems like it could turn into the darkest of comedies about a schizo killer. But most of the film’s like banging your head against 20 different walls: it should make things interesting, but mostly it just causes whiplash, shifing between storylines and random events with no clear method.
What the three films share: a moment with Ana on her back under Johannes spied by others (the first two times in a hotel room, the last in a field). As a link between all three narratives, it suggests an underlying thread about relationships, or sex, or something, that just isn’t in the films. Three films responding to each other? Not really.