Dir. Romuald Karmakar. Germany. 2004. 95mins.
Regarded by many as one of the great hopes of German cinema, Romuald Karmakar's award-studded career risks taking a downward turn with Nightsongs, a self-indulgent, repetitive and unimaginative adaptation of a Norwegian stage play that gains nothing from being transferred to film.
A static portrait of a marriage gone stale moving in circles around itself, the film features carefully studied but painfully bland performances from leads Frank Giering and Ann Ratte-Polle. They offer a couple of flat, indifferent characters who may be symbolic - they are deprived of names and distinct personalities - but whose fate is of no interest to audiences.
Bearing the basic appearance of a TV drama, theatrical distribution outlook is bleak at best. Film schools may be interested to take the film apart and analyse how good intentions can lead to such awkward results. The film played in competition at Berlin.
The film, set in a Berlin flat, starts with the ominous statement of a young wife (Ratte-Polle) that she cannot take it anymore. The quiet exasperation that reigns in this middle-class apartment (no one ever raises their voice because there is a baby sleeping) is immediately evident: it is the classic epitome of a marriage on the rocks.
The young husband is a failure, a writer that no one publishes. He refuses to budge from the sofa all day, instead withdrawing into long disconsolate silences and thick books, immersed in the depth of his self-induced despondency. His wife, a vibrant, lively and very frustrated young woman, cannot stand her husband's morbid acceptance of defeat and unsuccessfully tries to drag him out of his lethargy. The couple's baby, invisible through most of the film, does not resemble his father (we are told), cries a lot (but not during the film) and needs constant attention.
The wife goes for a night out with a girlfriend (she says), leaving the husband to stay home with the baby. She returns in the early hours when he puts on a hesitant but insistent show of jealousy. Finally she concedes there is more in her nightly diversion than meets the eye; separation seems the only solution, but neither is really that keen or prepared for such a drastic change.
The film is efficiently shot and lit, with the camera surprisingly steady and the images carefully framed in an age of handheld camera and improvised shots. Karmakar has all the ingredients necessary to portray a couple in a state of acute crisis: the catatonic husband who clings to his wife for support though he has done nothing to deserve it; the incensed wife who still has some affection for him but feels she is missing out on her own life by catering to his persistent gloom; the child who neither parent is prepared emotionally to deal with; the in-laws who always intrude at the wrong time and say the wrong things; and the little white lies and key phrases that are the staples of these occasions.
All these elements are here but to no avail, because everything that goes on in this couple's life is only too typical, familiar and predictable from countless similar dramas dealing with the end of a marriage. Only finely crafted characters and exceptionally powerful performances might have saved the day - and sadly neither are on display.
Romuald Karmakar tries to open up the film's stage play origins with inserts of the nightclubs the wife visits or shots of her in taxi rides with unidentified companions (a blunt hint of her marital infidelities), but these hardly expand the film's scope.
Adapting a stage play for the big screen does not necessarily mean opening it up; rather it involves adding another dimension to it or taking a closer look at the characters. Instead, all that Karmakar does is use the camera to separate the audience from the characters, almost creating laboratory conditions with which we can look at them through a microscope. Scientifically interesting, maybe - but how many tickets would that show sell'
Prod co: Pantera Film
Int'l sales: Bavaria Film International
Prod: Romuald Karmakar
Scr: Romuald Karmakar, Martin Rosefeldt, based on the play by Jon Fosse
Cinematography: Fred Schuler
Ed: Patricia Rommel
Prod des: Heide Ludi, Bettina Helmi
Music: Swans, Purcell, Miachael Meyer, Captain Comatose, Chris & Carla, Maximilian Hecker
Main cast: Frank Giering, Anne Ratte-Polle, Manfred Zapatka, Marthe Keller, Sebastian Schipper, Captain Comatose