There’s been no worse trend in 21st-century cinema than the emergence of the water-cooler puzzle movie. Defined by the films of Christopher Nolan (ambiguous highbrow entertainments) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (sentimental works of art-house prestige), they exist to carry no meaning of their own, preferring to offer a string of possibilities up to the viewer as a flattery to her ability to figure out a meaningless problem or make meaningless connections. It would be a mistake to call these talking-point machines generous; as much as the franchise film, these are the apotheosis of film as product, as a child’s desire for a new toy has been replaced by an adult’s to confirm his own intelligence.
Happily, I can report that Dreileben, a triptych film made of parts by Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhausler, takes this fragmented approach and makes something genuinely worth being called Faulknerian with it. The result of a conversation among the three on the state of German cinema, the film sets off from a central event—the escape of a convicted murderer, Molesch (an alternately blank and delirious Stefan Kurt), while visiting the body of his dead foster mother at a nursing home—and tells three tenuously connected stories that in concert present a brutal vision of a world on a wire. Because each happens to run a feature-length 90 minutes, the three sections of Dreileben are being shown individually elsewhere, a regrettable decision given how thoroughly dependent on the direct mingling of divergent aesthetics and contradictory narrative facts the cumulative wallop of the film is.
Unlike the dire Red Riding Trilogy, Dreileben occurs in vertical rather than horizontal time, with each of the three sections complicating any sense of temporal certainty in the others. This conflicted time is just one facet of the struggle for a coherent narrative that lies at the heart of the project, a fact that manifests itself on every conceivable level across the film’s nearly five hours. Graf’s section, Don’t Follow Me Around, embodies this conflict most distinctly on the level of narrative: What begins as a procedural modulates into a chamber piece centered on the drama caused by the revelation of a mutual lover shared by two old friends. Graf builds the film out of cluttered, illogical compositions (his favorite being a fractured image that splits two people in close contact into completely separate spaces) and unmotivated camera moves that give the impression of an organizing intelligence situated forever beyond our recognition.
Petzold too concerns himself with issues of perspective, beginning his section, Beats Being Dead, as a series of touches and annoyances that’s one of the most accurate portraits of young love in recent memory before breaking it up with the intrusion of a gratingly suspenseful score and a number of menacing point-of-view shots whose view is never directly revealed (Petzold disappointingly gives away the game on this rather early by confirming the presence of a looker). The whole of Beats Being Dead gives the impression of being a smart trifle occurring on the fringes of a more urgent story, though its focus on the class conflict between social climbing med student Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) and his immigrant-maid girlfriend Ana (Luna Mijovic, like a young Hanna Schygulla with her pouty, knowing face) eventually falls near the heart of the film.
The final section, Hochhausler’s One Minute of Darkness, focuses directly on the motivating story, following the killer on the lam in something like a less allegorical Essential Killing and the mental decline of the police chief tasked with finding him and haunted by the original murder, caught on surveillance cameras at all but the crucial minute. With its copious use of fantastic elements, tossed-off handling of narrative details (one major point of the plot is, as far as I can tell, beyond all comprehension, though it does serve to reinforce a thematic point), and eventual arrival at Dreileben’s political core, One Minute of Darkness is both the film’s outlier and the most crucial to an understanding of its philosophical project. Molesch, having spent 80 minutes running from waves of police through the German woods, eventually arrives at his foster mother’s home where, in the midst of a literal hell, he burns documents relating to his past, chief among them a newspaper relating his biological father’s persecution as a labor organizer. Confronted with one history, he responds violently toward his situation, leading to a replay of the scene that closed Beats Being Dead (though one that’s shot as if from a slightly incorrect memory), which folds in all of the issues of class and repression that have circled the story into a single instant.
Though its ending offers a number of possible interpretations, this inability to pin down a single meaning is both an organic part of the project, and more importantly, each reading proves of real political and social insight (as opposed to the no-stakes games of Inception or Babel). Dreileben makes distinct and deeply meaningful use of film and digital: Beats Being Dead and One Minute of Darkness were shot HD, the former in crisp images that lay the situation bare, the latter in rich, stylized green browns and shadows that mirror the film’s increasing skepticism of a comprehensible situation, while Don’t Follow Me Around’s soft, grainy 16mm is appropriate to its shifty, nostalgic story; all three are presented digitally. And with the emphasis on a very cinephilic sense of image recall, it’s useful to look at Dreileben as the festival’s thesis film. Here’s hoping that there are even a handful that can match it.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8—18.