Film: Vier Minuten (Four Minutes)
From the moment I began to watch, Vier Minuten had me by the wrists.
This German film is the story of Traude Krüger (Monica Bleibtreu), a resigned and bitter older woman teaching piano at a women's prison, and her most unlikely star student, 20-year-old Jenny von Loeben (Hannah Herzsprung), a convicted killer with a history of familial abuse. Ms. Krüger notices Jenny playing an imaginary piano on a church pew during a hymn she herself is playing on the organ, and soon discovers that this gritty, violent young woman has an extraordinary gift. The film traces the evolution of their relationship as student and teacher, which is often fraught with Jenny's numerous personal demons, as well as Ms. Krüger's excruciating past. Though it would have put the audience at ease, the film never allows you to feel comfortable during any interaction between the two, which is perhaps one of its greatest strengths. Jenny nervously picks the skin of her precious hands to shreds and lashes out as the other prisoners show their hatred for her special treatment, while Ms. Krüger's fragile world, consisting almost entirely of her love for music, is continually threatened by the volatile prison environment.
Though Vier Minuten takes place in the present day, the only interiors we see are that of the prison, Ms. Krüger's cramped, antiquated apartment, and Nazi prison dungeons in flashbacks, which depict her as a young nurse during World War II. Early on, we discover that the crushing horror of war has cost her the one woman she loved, forcing her to fill the void with an obsessive adherence to the art of classical music for the rest of her life. Jenny often reflects the hope Ms. Kruger once had for herself, though the mirror she is supposed to represent is often shattered and splattered with blood, due to her fits of anger. We are only given fleeting moments of peace, which take place at the piano, when true understanding flows between the two women. The visual differences between the two create some of the most arresting shots in the film: Jenny, snarling yet beautifully damaged, with shaggy hair falling over one eye, and Ms. Krüger, a drawn, tight-laced teacher with her hair pulled back in a severe bun.
The score, of course, is heavily present in this film, relying heavily on the Schumann piece Ms. Krüger selects for the contest Jenny is to win. There is also a constant musical battle between the two, as Jenny fights to play her crashing, rhythmic modern music ("Negro music," as her teacher calls it), and Ms. Krüger insists she learn only "real" music; the refined classics. At times, it is difficult to tell whether the film's music is being included for atmosphere or if it is actually taking place, and more often than not, it is serving as both.
Vier Minuten is painful and merciless, but exquisite in its storytelling and brutal honesty. American films dealing with similar themes tend to, in my experience, provide relief for their audiences by allowing "bad" characters to show off their redeeming qualities, or by resolving one small issue or another. We are not given that courtesy with this film until the very end, rendering its conclusion more powerful than anything I've seen as of late. Both Bleibtreu and Herzsprung deliver raw, unrelenting performances, largely outshining the supporting cast in their respective levels of commitment.
German filmmaker Chris Kraus' Vier Minuten has won 15 international awards, including a German Oscar and audience awards from the 2007 Hamptons International Film Festival and the 2007 Frameline: San Francisco LGBT Film Festival. The film has just finished a week-long run at the Cinema Village, and will open in Los Angeles on April 25 at the Laemmle Music Hall.
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