Scheduled for a June 22 opening at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, “Longing” (Sehnsucht) will remind you of the work of Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. The Dardennes use nonprofessional actors in a super-naturalistic setting that eschews conventional melodramatic techniques. Their characters come out of the working class and are faced with some moral dilemma tied to broader social issues. For example, their most successful film “La Promesse” features a son breaking with his father’s racist treatment of undocumented African workers but is much more about their filial ties than the plight of immigrants.
“Longing” is directed by Valeska Grisebach, a 39 year old German who studied philosophy and German literature before starting a career in film. She appropriates the Dardenne’s style, but dispenses with their tendency to employ a backdrop involving socioeconomic issues. It of course must be added that their most recent films do so as well.
Ella, Markus’s wife
“Longing” tells the story of Markus and Ella, a happily married couple in their thirties who live in a rural village near Berlin. She is a part-time domestic and he is a metalworker and a member of the local volunteer fire department. When he and his company go for training in a nearby town, he gets drunk at a party for the firemen and spends the night with a waitress named Rose. After returning home, he makes periodic trips to visit Rose who he has fallen for. But at the same time his love for his wife is as strong as ever.
Eventually Ella finds out about his affair and moves out. Grief-stricken, Markus goes into a barn and shoots himself in the chest with a shotgun. That is about all there is to the story, except for a denouement that leaves you hanging. In keeping with the Dardenne’s vision, Grisebach is anxious to avoid any kind of pat conclusions. We do not even know which woman Markus ends up with.
Despite the threadbare quality of the film, it manages to hold your attention through its immersion in the detail of its characters life. The film has almost a documentary quality as we see them going about their daily chores or engaging in leisure activity in a typical small town German. Grisebach also draws out excellent performances from her actors, even though they are in many ways simply representing who they are in real life. Markus is played by Andreas Müller, an auto mechanic who is active in his own fire department in Brandenburg, while Ilka Welz plays Ella. She is a nurse who works in a Berlin hospital.
In the press notes, Grisebach says that she decided to tell this story because of its simplicity, which was like a country song that “can be passed on, just as the children do at the end of the film.” I can understand her decision since the film reminded me of an old blues songs like “Frankie and Johnnie” or “Careless Love”. Some things like a lovers’ triangle are part of our universal experience, much more so than the typical Hollywood fare that conforms to some production company’s profit-driven idea of what people care about.