Beats Being Dead

Johannes is smitten with Ana

The story behind Beats Being Dead (Etwas Besseres als den Tod) is an unusual one. Three hot German film directors belonging to what’s often loosely termed the Berlin School were corresponding together about the upcoming 40th anniversary of the DFFB (Berlin’s film and TV academy), and generally bemoaning the state of German cinema – what was there to celebrate etc? And so they decided to make a trio of loosely linked films to plug what they saw as a few gaps.

Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler were the dynamic trio and, following Petzold’s lead, they set their stories in the bleak and romantic forests of Thuringia, in a place called Dreileben, a real place but which also translates into English as “three lives” and gives the films their portmanteau title.

Petzold also leads the charge in the first story, a typically strange drama set midway between thriller and fairytale and centring, as so many Petzold stories do, on a young man who is suddenly helplessly smitten by a mysterious young woman. Ana (Luna Zimic Mijovic) is a chambermaid at a local hotel and Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) is serving out his military service requirement as a volunteer in a local hospital, a cushy number he’s managed to wangle thanks to the senior doctor being his ex-girlfriend’s dad.

The way Johannes and Ana meet is peculiar. He’s sleeping naked at night by a lake, and she just happens to be topless, having just given a blowjob to the top dog in a local biker gang. To what’s clearly designed to be the antithesis of the meet-cute Petzold adds in an escaped sex offender to menace Ana – the sex offender links the three films together – before setting Johannes and Ana off on a far from straightforward romance in which the pair of them argue, then one apologises, then both of them reconcile, much of the action taking place out in the forest, or back in the bedroom where sex works as the magic balm that soothes all injuries.

Johannes sleeping naked
Johannes sleeps naked

The story is based on the myth of the Undine water nymph, apparently, which Petzold would return to more fully in the 2020 film Undine, but the bones of it are clearly visible here. Meat and potatoes guy, unknowable woman – with Ana’s sudden and apparently easy switch from the biker boss to Johannes reflected in the later film, though tackled slightly differently.

Flight, is as ever with Petzold, a theme – he wants to escape Germany and go to LA, and she wants to go with him, for what might be purely mercenary reasons, or maybe out of love, or maybe she’s just fastened on to him like some mythical barnacle and that’s the end of it: he’s stuck with her. Relationships are fairly unknowable.

There is a lot of murky undertow and superficially not a lot to see, though Petzold’s usual DP Hans Fromm shoots seemingly non-eventful scenes with a clear, sharp look as if to encourage the viewer to look beyond what’s on show. His usual composer, Stefan Will, helps fill in the gaps with a score that switches from thriller urgency to weird, music-box-style fairytale motifs. Dominik Graf, who’d direct the next film, Komm Mir Nicht Nach (Don’t Follow Me Around), once referred to the Snow White effect of much Berlin School output. See this film for further details.

Petzold chucks in a joke at one point, playing the Fleetwood Mac song Sara at a party Johannes and Ana are at, a song about a woman who steals another woman’s man, which the film’s plot duly shadows. Johannes’s ex is called Sarah (Vijessna Ferkic). It’s the film’s emotional high water mark, and it’s done in a manner that’s so weird there ought to be an award for it. Like the off-colour meet-cute.

Is Ana a sprite? Who knows? Will the escaped murderer become anything more than a Maguffin in the later films? Let’s see. Is this a gripping film? No, not at all. It’s non-gripping, anti-gripping, in fact. Most odd. Very good.

Dreileben box set (including Beats Being Dead) – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Jacob Matschenz and Paule Beer in a swimming pool

So, an Undine. It’s a mythical water nymph, mentioned by Paracelsus, the Renaissance physician, but you won’t learn that directly from Christian Petzold’s latest drama, an increasingly bizarre and dislocated story of love suffused with magical realist moments that make no sense at all… unless you realise that the titular Undine (Paula Beer) is a version of the mythical creature who fell in love with a human.

This Undine is a pencil-skirted guide to historical Berlin. She’s fresh out of a relationship with a guy she thought was the one, now propelled by fate into another one when a fish tank explodes and she and a man she’s just met (Franz Rogowski) are deluged by its contents. A watery meet-cute. He’s an industrial diver working as a welder on one of Berlin’s bridges. More water.

If you don’t know that Undine is a water nymph, what you get for your money for the rest of the film is an intense love story – Undine and Christoph – which is supercharged at the point where ex-boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) arrives back on the scene and things move from lovey-dovey to dramatically shocking at some speed. Water is always in the picture, sometimes malign, sometimes benign.

It’s a very European film, cool, character driven, with Bach on the soundtrack and Berlin looking like its reputation suggests – efficient and artisanal. Though it’s quite a chunky role for Rogowski as the new boyfriend (Matschenz is very good as the old one but he’s window dressing), it’s another example of a film carried entirely by Beer, only 25 but already a veteran, having anchored Frantz for François Ozon and Transit for Petzold and co-starred in Never Look Away by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. She was also the lead in the fascinating if increasingly preposterous TV series Bad Banks, a story about bankers being really bad.

Franz Rogowski as diver Christoph
Christoph works as a diver

Nina Hoss used to be the go-to for Petzold (they have made four films together) but Beer is a good replacement. She’s not only got that way of holding the camera but also a loose natural style that never seems self-conscious. She’s also very attractive – which helps and is also a talent.

Rogowski and support player Maryam Zee, as one of Christoph’s colleagues, also belong to what might loosely be called Petzold’s current repertory company – Beer, Zee and Rogoski (sounds like an upmarket law firm) all feature in Transit.

For Petzold, it’s a return to the films with a supernatural flavour, like Gespenster and Yella, that he used to make before he became more fascinated with conflicts of identity. Though you wouldn’t describe any of his films as exactly realistic – it’s either the supernatural or breathtaking coincidences that disbar them – Petzold always operates in a believeable and self-contained environment. We know where we are.

The giant catfish that swims through the murky waters of the River Spee at one point could be a metaphor for his films – here comes the weird stuff, sliding towards us like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Along with ability to conjure place and time and his skill at getting relaxed performances out of his actors, it’s what makes his films so watchable. If Undine is perhaps not quite up there in terms of power and arthouse spookiness with Yella (a personal favourite), its hypnotic quality makes it worth including in a list of films definitely worth catching.

Undine – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020