Sunday, August 30, 2009

When Grandparents Fall in Love

The East Berlin setting of German director Andreas Dresen’s 2008 film Cloud 9 doesn't particularly jump out at you. What we mostly see of it is the view from the window of the apartment that the film’s protagonist, 60-something-year-old Inge, shares with her partner of 30 years, showing the S-bahn tracks that come to stand for the ever-sameness of a marriage that has been stuck on the same track for years. Inge’s partner Werner is so obsessed with trains and train travel that he still listens to his old vinyl records that preserve the sounds various models of locomotive make when they pull into various East German train stations. He has Inge join him on recreational train rides (“The landscapes along the train tracks are much better than the ones along the highway”) and entertains his granddaughters by showing them his catalogues of locomotive models. At the same time, the tracks we see again and again out the window provide an image for Inge’s restlessness and her desire to experience something new—feelings that take her almost as much by surprise as they do her grown daughter and husband. Inge’s decision to leave Werner for an even older (but livelier) man with whom she falls suddenly, madly in love after she alters a pair of trousers for him raises so many issues that after the movie a considerable subset of the audience remained standing outside the theater because everyone wanted to know whether everyone else thought she had done the right thing. Everyone seemed fascinated by the issues surrounding Inge’s choice. (Dresen’s heavy use of nudity and explicit sex, on the other hand, appeared utterly uncontroversial.) So of course: people at any age can fall in love and fall into bed with one another, but what does it mean to abandon one’s partner of 30 years on the brink of old age in search of a greater happiness? In my favorite scene of the movie, Inge tells her husband a dirty joke her lover has told her after an incident of impotence. (“How do 80-year-olds screw? She does a handstand, and he drops it in from above.”) She snorts with laughter as she relates the joke and then for long minutes afterward shakes with elated, irrepressible laughter. Her new love, as Werner will remark later with a certain bitterness, has made her seem young again.

Dresen, who grew up in East Germany, uses the film’s East Berlin backdrop to lend depth to both the characters and the story. Almost twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Werner is still listening to DDR train sound recordings as his evening’s entertainment—a sound that mirrors the one we hear in the film’s opening shot, a close-up of the foot of Inge’s sewing machine moving over the fabric of the trousers that are about to change her life, producing stitch after stitch as regular and unchanging as railroad ties. They read the Berliner Zeitung over breakfast—the newspaper of choice for East Berliners of a certain age, as opposed to the West Berlin papers Berliner Morgenpost and Der Tagesspiegel. Inge’s lover Karl also takes her on an outing coded as East German: skinny-dipping in the lakes on the outskirts of Berlin, reached by bicycle. (Indeed, the more or less universal acceptance of nude bathing in East Germany produced some conflicts after 1989 when certain popular beaches such as those on the Baltic coast became accessible to West Germans, who showed up attired in bathing suits only to find the beach covered with happy nudists.) But while Karl is vital and active—we see him riding his bicycle and coaching younger cyclists—Werner is not. Apparently his only physical activity is rolling an abs-exerciser joylessly back and forth on the carpet as Inge cheers him on, and he spends hours smoking in his study, pursuing the monotonous labor of retirement. (Inge, meanwhile, who takes in sewing, does this work at a cramped table in the corner of their bedroom.) Werner is petrified, and his stuck-in-the-pastness is underscored by his ongoing obsession with his pre-1989 hobby as though nothing significant had changed in the world since then. Speaking of his wheelchair-bound father whom Inge and he visit in a Prenzlauer Berg nursing home (and who appears to be mentally as well as physically in decline), Werner says: “If I ever get like that, take me out in the woods and shoot me.”—but in fact he is already frozen enough that it manifests as physical rigidity. One audience member discussing the film afterward remarked: “He’s just like the Tin Man.” There’s a sense that in choosing the physically vital Karl over Werner, Inge has chosen motion and life.

Dresen’s film is a moving study of love at a certain age and the difficulties and responsibilities that accompany it. Fabulous acting, beautifully observed and filmed scenes, and with lots of skillfully incorporated gaps in the storytelling that remind us that—much as we might think we know the characters whose story we are watching—we are viewing their lives from the outside.

1 comment:

copydude said...

You write brilliant reviews.

On the strength of this, I immediately acquired a copy of 'Cloud 9' and found it as watchable as you describe.

Yes, why does old age shock people? As someone wrote, 'we are the same children we always were, except that no-one wants to play with us anymore'.

Thanks again for the tip.