It’s been two years since Channel 4 unveiled its ambitious yet patchy Red Riding Trilogy, which was adapted from David Peace’s crime novels, with each of the three episodes made by a different home-grown director. Following a similar principle, the three-part German TV project Dreileben, which screened in the Cinema Europa section at this year’s London Film Festival, was directed by three of the country’s leading filmmakers, Christian Petzold (Yella, Jerichow), Dominik Graf (Germany 09) and Christoph Hochhä;usler (The City Below, Germany 09). This screening may not have been met with the same level of enthusiasm by UK audiences as back in Germany, when the films premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, yet Dreileben is a bold, innovative and largely compelling experiment in cinematic storytelling that deserves more attention than it has received during its limited festival run.
Almost more fascinating than the outcome is the initial extensive email conversation between the three filmmakers about film aesthetics, which ultimately led them to continue their heated exchange on screen. ‘The three of us had a long and extremely intensive correspondence on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the DFFB, the German Film and Television Academy Berlin,’ says Petzold. ‘It started off with a discussion about the so-called â€œBerlin Schoolâ€, which Dominik criticised. According to him we were in danger of compromising our view, our deep and passionate criticism, in favour of a common style, which would ultimately lead to a feeling of artificiality, constraint, and a distrust in communication, in language. We wrote to each other on a daily basis for about six weeks. Suddenly, the DFFB anniversary had passed, but we missed having these conversations, so we continued to meet and to talk, without any recording devices or designated use, until we decided to start this film project together.’
Defined by Hochhä;usler as ‘sibling films rather than a trilogy’, each of the resulting films feels very much like a separate piece of work, although there are more or less obvious plot links and reoccurring characters, similarly to the format of the Red Riding Trilogy. Most importantly, the filmmakers agreed upon a criminal case as the golden thread that binds their individual narratives: the escape of a convict from police custody into a small town called Dreileben. Located in the beautiful yet chilling Thuringia Forest, in the former East Germany, it seemed to be the ideal place for what the directors where trying to achieve. ‘I knew Thuringia from my childhood,’ says Petzold. ‘My mother grew up there, and I made Christoph and Dominik go and visit the area. Despite its proximity to Weimar, the home of Goethe and Schiller, it has always been a very poor area. People didn’t want to live there, they left if they could, and those who stayed told dark stories to each other. We liked that.’ As a consequence, Dreileben draws heavily on the German romantic tradition in terms of its approach to nature – seeing it both as a place of danger and a place of inspiration.
This becomes most evident in the third part, One Minute of Darkness, directed by Christoph Hochhä;usler, which also proves to be the most compelling episode. The film focuses on the investigations by the local detective in charge of the case of Frank Molesch, the escaped murderer, who – if only in the eyes of the detective – may actually be innocent. ‘What I find very intriguing is that we can never be sure about anything,’ says Hochhä;usler. ‘Instead we have to construct reality time and again. And what interested me most about Molesch’s character was the question: to what extent are we the authors of our own destiny, and to what extent do other people have an influence on that? Molesch is an extremely malleable, extremely soft persona, whose entire life has been dictated by his foster mother and external authorities, and I thought it would be interesting to explore what happens if such a diktat no longer exists. Can he actually make use of this moment of freedom? Where does it lead to?’
Hence Hochhä;usler’s episode is told mainly from Molesch’s viewpoint. In one of the film’s most gripping scenes, Molesch, despite his almost brutish actions, enters into a wonderfully tender bond with a young runaway, who also happens to be hiding in the woods. Meanwhile, the police inspector tries to get inside the head of Molesch, in order both to find him and prove his innocence. Shot in the cool and sparse New German Cinema manner, One Minute of Darkness may bring nothing terribly new to the genre, but it still makes for an effective and solid thriller in its own right.
In contrast, Petzold’s Beats Being Dead (the first episode in the trilogy) dazzles on the aesthetic level, but fails to keep up the tension and intensity from start to finish. Petzold reveals very little about the murder; instead, we meet Johannes, a young male nurse, who begins an affair with an immigrant girl from Eastern Europe who works in a nearby hotel. While the hunt for Molesch always remains in the shadow of the film’s main narrative, Petzold decides to concentrate on the mismatched couple as they struggle with life as much as with their young, and doomed, relationship.
Sitting in between the two episodes is Dominik Graf’s Don’t Follow Me Around, in which a police psychologist has been ordered to Dreileben to help the local police in their investigation. Adopting a style that is less cool and detached than Petzold and Hochhäusler’s approach, Graf manages to deftly weave a compelling personal story about two women, who fell for the same lover in the past, into the crime scenario. However, he gets slightly too carried away by his own ambitions for the project, rather than simply sticking with its initial premise.
Taken as a whole, Dreileben might have benefited if Petzold, Graf and Hochhä;usler were slightly less hard-headed filmmakers. There seems to be a potential in their work that is not quite realised, a kind of brilliance that keeps bumping against the same creative blockages. Still, aesthetically and conceptually, Dreileben is an innovative and engrossing, if slow-burning, TV-style crime-drama experiment that often hits a note of genuine mystery and discomfort in its attempts to break away from the narrow scope that has characterised much of recent German filmmaking. It’s certainly worth four and a half hours of your time, even if it’s not quite the triumph that might be expected from each of these three directors.