In Christian Schwochow’s 1980s-set The Tower, the dissolution of the bourgeois Hoffman family mirrors the crumbling East Germany they call home, where long-held secrets threaten to uproot a traditional order both familial and political. Richard Hoffman (Jan Josef Liefers) is a noted surgeon who’s been leading a double life for years: He’s married with a precocious and lonely son, Christian (Sebastian Urzendowsky), but his long-standing affair with a secretary has produced a child that he supports. As Christian begins to question East Germany’s questionable socialist agenda after being sent off to boarding school, and later the military, Richard’s complacent lifestyle is thrown into turmoil as he attempts to leave his emotionally fragile mistress once and for all.
Schwochow’s ascetic depiction of his Cold War environment can come across as a bit too on the nose given his use of icy-blue camera filters. Worse, as the psychology of the characters hardly connects with their distinctive milieu, the film merely suggests a conventional family drama littered with empty pot-shots at governmental authority. The filmmaker juggles his many narrative threads with relative ease, and the punchy and economic character interactions ensure that the film moves briskly at all times—and, in the case of certain scenes, manages to somewhat distract from a nagging spatial incoherence. And yet the majority of these threads all follow a series of expected beats to reach a predictable conclusion, which is only differentiated by the film’s almost novelty-like setting. Richard’s double life is never placed in the context of the socialist regime he’s subject to, even though there are numerous references to how hard it is to get by (including one character mentioning the machinations of the Stasi); the viewer is hardly ever shown instances directly involving the East German government, which leaves the depiction of Richard’s dilemma feeling tepid and evasive.
Christian’s journey from meek student to rebellious soldier is the one storyline that most compellingly illustrates the diverging ideologies that effectively rang the death knell for East Germany. Presenting a generational dynamic between teacher and pupil and, later on, commander and soldier, Schwochow creates a slow-burn tension with Christian’s progressively assertive rebuff of his superior’s viewpoints, which are all focused on serving a societal good without regard to an individual’s well-being. Before Christian’s arc culminates into a hopelessly contrived, apolitical set piece that pits him against his family, Schwochow articulates the young man’s growing rebellion by having the character bite his tongue in the wake of questionable political and familial activities, and where these buried emotions build into a pent-up retaliation against the established norm, which intriguingly betray the quiet dignity Christian had once carried. Out of the various plotlines that form the narrative fat of The Tower, it’s only Christian’s thread that transcends harmless political critique.