One of the big films of 2006 in Germany, Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon) caused barely a ripple anywhere else. Which is a pity, because it’s a great example of a precisely acted, brilliantly crafted film telling a good story without histrionics. In a world dominated by superhereos, subtlety sometimes struggles to get a hearing.
It’s shot warm, and that’s the idea – the fuzzy, warm friendship between two women, Katrin and Nike, who spend most evenings after thankless days drinking wine together on a balcony and setting the world to rights while summertime Berlin burbles away below.
While their relationship is good, the rest of their lives are a little shaky. Lone parent Katrin has no job and, as a couple of early scenes make clear, isn’t even very good in mock-up job interviews organised by the Arbeitsamt, the department of employment. Singleton Nike is a care worker and spends her days dealing with old people – demented, dirty, desolate souls whose only point of contact with the outside world is her.
And then there’s men. They either don’t have one, or they do and it’s… complicated. Like the lorry driver who comes into Nike’s life and proceeds to show what a boor, a cock, a chauvinist he is, before he gets into his stride with some expert-level gaslighting.
And on top of all this, both ladies are at the bad end of their 30s – 39 and a half, as Katrin keeps correcting job interviewers who describe her as 40 – and the young, free and single life they’ve been enjoying for quite a long time is signalling that it’s taking its ball away and heading off to play with younger people.
It’s an expertly written and fantastically played drama, full of little realistic comic flourishes – like when Nike first takes a lorry driver home and she only has tangerine liqueur to drink, the sort of thing you bring home from an exotic holiday and never drink again. Or when, the next morning, he’s trying to talk about the night before and she mistakenly thinks he’s bringing up the subject of the anal sex they had. Actually, he’s just pointing out that she spent the whole night calling him Roland when his name is Ronald. Take a bow writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase, a veteran with over 50 years of credits to his name (at this point).
Director Andreas Dresen shoots it all loosey-goosey, like the friends’ relationship and lifestyle, free and easy, and conjures that warm summertime vibe you get in a city where buildings hold on to the heat long after the sun has set.
Kohlhaase and Dresen also give time and space to minor characters, letting them breathe, which is slightly unexpected. The oldies Nike takes care of, Katrin’s son Max who’s suffering first-love woes, Tina, the barkeep at the local drinking hole, all emerge into the dramatic light, becoming solid three-dimensional characters in a story that isn’t about them at all.
It’s the classic three act drama, with a set up, a development and a resolution of sorts. Though with its doling out of new revelations even as it winds towards a close it captures that “could go on for ever” vibe of a soap opera, in a good way, and signals clearly at the end that that’s exactly what everyone involved has been aiming for with an “und so weiter” (“and so on”) intertitle announcement as the curtain comes down.
Inka Friedrich and Nadja Uhl are plausible, likeable and recognisable as Katrin and Nike, sweet, funny and, for the most part kind women just trying to make the best of a so-so hand. Andreas Schmidt is grimly watchable as Ronald, or Roland, an entirely offhand, self-regarding guy who needs a slap.
A real gem.
Summer in Berlin – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022