Most people who come upon Dreileben at the New York Film Festival may immediately think of the Red Riding Trilogy, which screened at the festival two years ago to generally wide acclaim. The Red Riding Trilogy was a series of three made-for-television films that explored corruption in various corners of British society during a yearlong investigation into the murder of a bunch of Yorkshire girls. Though there were consistent plot and thematic threads in all of them, each installment was handled by a different director, with each one bringing a different approach to their respective episodes (each director even chose to shoot their own installment in different formats). Dreileben is a likewise dense and detailed epic, also made for television, that features three different German directors bringing their own styles and themes to more or less the same set of incidents. The end results, as was the case with the Red Riding Trilogy, are, perhaps inevitably, wildly mixed.
The title of the series roughly translates to “three lives”—appropriate enough, considering it consists of three films, each of which center around three different characters. Dreileben, it turns out, is also the name of the town in Germany in which most of the action in the three films takes place. Broadly speaking, the overarching plot thread hanging over the trilogy is easily summarized: a convicted murderer named Molesche (played by Stefan Kurt in all three films) escapes police custody, and this leads to a massive police manhunt. The manhunt is the partial focus of Dominik Graf’s second film in the series, Don’t Follow Me Around; Molesch himself, though, takes center stage in Christoph Höchhausler’s concluding episode, One Minute of Darkness, as we not only see how he escapes, but are then immersed in his headspace as he wanders around a forest, free from the shackles of prison and trying to hide from the authorities. At the end of it all, a violent incident toward the end of the first film, Christian Petzold’s Beats Being Dead, is replayed from a different perspective, and is informed with the full weight of what we have learned about Molesch and everything else leading up to that tragic—and, it turns out, deeply ironic—moment.
With some scenes replayed throughout all three films from different and sometimes revealing perspectives, Dreileben as a whole could be considered yet another modern-day variation on Béla Tarr’s 1994 Sátántangó, at least narratively speaking. The German series also shares with Tarr’s epic an interest in dissecting a whole social environment, uncovering some unsavory human truths in the process. This exploration of varying perspectives is perhaps most pointedly articulated in Petzold’s film, which starts the trilogy off on an unexpected note by telling a story that is only tangentially related to Molesch and his reign of terror. Beats Being Dead focuses instead on Johannes (Jacob Matschenz), an ambitious hospital intern who finds himself falling in love with a Bosnian refugee/hotel maid named Ana (Luna Mijovic) even as he carries an on-and-off relationship behind the scenes with Sarah (Vijessa Ferkic), the pretty daughter of the hospital’s chief surgeon (Rainer Bock).
Both Johannes—whose only connection to Molesch is that he inadvertently aids his escape—and Ana are, in a sense, victims of their own tunnel vision: Johannes is in love with Ana, but is too focused on achieving his dreams for his future to take his relationship with her quite as seriously as Ana herself seems to take it. But surely, during that one beautifully tender scene in which Johannes dances with Ana while whispering translations of the lyrics to “Cry Me a River” in her ear, there’s something authentically romantic going on between these two? Petzold doesn’t say. As in his last film, Jerichow, he takes a potentially hot-and-heavy scenario—a Postman Always Rings Twice-like love triangle in Jerichow, a story of tempestuous young love here—and dries out all sentiment by taking a more cosmically detached viewpoint. Petzold is more interested in putting these two lovebirds in their places rather than swimming freely in their romantic feelings; their love, such as it is, ultimately means little in the face of not only Molesch’s supposed threat, but in economic forces that certainly govern Johannes’s behavior, for well and ill.
Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around is, again, more immediately relevant to the series’ overarching storyline, focusing on the pursuit of Molesch and the secrets the manhunt uncovers about corruption in the town’s police force. But the film also focuses on other, more personal secrets. Graf, who co-wrote the screenplay with Markus Busch, especially zeroes in on one character: a brilliant but emotionally remote criminal psychologist named Jo (Jeanette Hain) who’s forced, after a hotel mix-up, to stay with her longtime friend Vera (Susanne Wolff) and her writer/husband Bruno (Misel Maticevic). It turns out that both Jo and Vera coincidentally once shared a former lover, and that Vera remains haunted by the relationship’s lack of closure, to the point that she disappears for a few days as she tries to track him down.
Soap-operatic revelations ensue, and gradually a thematic connection between the standard procedural elements and Jo’s personal dramas comes into focus: Don’t Follow Me Around is all about characters unearthing their past and the fraught emotions that often accompany such attempts. In that way, then, Graf’s decision to shoot his film in grainy 16mm rather than Petzold’s and Höchhausler’s preferred digital video, is doubly appropriate, giving the film the texture of a memory compared to the blaringly present-day feel of the other two films.
And yet, Höchhausler’s One Minute of Darkness is, despite its digital photography (its digital-ness even more apparent than in Petzold’s contribution), even more obsessed with the past. Not only do we get a glimpse into Molesch’s pained backstory, but we also go back to the crime for which he was convicted, as one cop obsessively pursues the truth behind a case he once thought solved. As with Don’t Follow Me Around, One Minute of Darkness adopts a parallel-story structure, cutting back and forth between Molesch’s wanderings as he eludes the authorities and the detective’s attempts to try to immerse himself in his target’s psychology.
One Minute of Darkness is paradoxically the least gripping Dreileben film—for all its nightmarish visuals as Molesch goes deeper into the forest both literally and figuratively, this section has a tendency to plod the most—and the most important in its overall conception. In the two previous films, Molesch was seen simply as a monster, a potentially violent presence hovering over the proceedings; Höchhausler’s film fills in the details and thus humanizes him—though that’s not to say that he’s painted as a sympathetic character, by any means. Like his predecessors (Petzold most strikingly), Höchhausler depicts it all with a calmly detached eye; the result is a portrait of a disturbed individual with emotional traumas that, even by its haunting close, we cannot even begin to fathom.
Though Petzold’s contribution is by far the most intriguing and affecting of the three, Dreileben as a whole does add up to more than the sum of its parts, at least conceptually and structurally. Consider this particular trilogy as a three-film reminder that we could all stand to maintain a necessary sense of a larger worldly perspective in our lives, as many of the characters in this series often fail to do.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.