I confess: I couldn’t help but think of Barbara, which I recently re-watched, when I saw the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival’s opening night screening of the excellent Zwei Leben (Two Lives). Foremost on my mind, of course, was the taut, unflinching and circuitous narratives about the legacy of the East German Stasi (secret police) and its long-term effects on personal lives, and with each film book-ending those decades right before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Notably, both films marvelously deploy nature to underscore the cold and difficult undercurrents of political violence and personal tragedy: where it is the relentless wind in Barbara, it is the turbulent sea in Zwei Leben.
The film, which is set and filmed mostly in Norway, is bounded on one side by the sea, next to which Katrine, the protagonist and owner of said two lives, and her family reside. Katrine, decades earlier, had escaped East Germany by sea; in one of the many effective backstory-filling flashbacks, she steps off the boat to meet her long-lost mother, a Norwegian from whom Katrine was taken by the Germans (her father was German). The sea is both Katrine’s freedom and the bridge to her lost family. It is also her source of solitude as she kayaks every morning. Throughout the film, the gorgeous and rocky coastline and the sea are prominent, both visually and aurally, but it feels restful and turbulent all at once: the audience cannot help but feel that the worst is yet to come.
This landscape is about the only “real” thing in Zwei Leben, as we find out that Katrine’s identity is definitely not what it seems. As she weaves in and out of her peaceful present life and her dangerous past (which re-appears in the guise of several dark-suited men), the director George Maas deftly illustrates the ways in which political and personal lying mingle in disastrous ways and display the same dynamics and characteristics. Elaborately constructed falsehoods take on the idyllic sheen of truth; when the real truth is revealed, it is distasteful, and in this case, life-threatening. In contrast to the “real” exterior, the interiors are shot as to leave no doubt as to the level of secrecy, paranoia, and dissimulation which Katrine has to endure. The courtroom, bedroom, orphanage, and hotel room, which vary in size and purpose, all have that same claustrophobic, shadowy feel, with secrets lurking in the corners. Though they have the sheen of reality, Katrine knows that it is all illusory. From the filmmakers’ point of view, the truth is usually the best route, and Katrine’s only hope for peace: but at what cost?
With Sven Nordin, Liv Ullmann, and the heartbreaking Juliane Köhler in the title role. It is Germany’s official entry into the 86th Academy Awards, Best Foreign Film category.
Zwei Leben (Two Lives), dir. Georg Maas, 2012. 100 min. Zinnober Film/Aachen, B&T Film/Berlin, et al. In Norwegian, German and English.
More reading: Berlin and Beyond: Sensational Seven Shorts Program