Berlinale 2020: SCHWESTERLEIN (MY LITTLE SISTER) And BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ

The following two films screened at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival as part of the Competition program, and both detail a dynamic duo that could not have been any more different from one another. Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond‘s Schwesterlein (My Little Sister) follows a loving brother and sister, while Burhan Qurbani‘s Berlin Alexanderplatz details a much more complex relationship between two rising gangsters.

Schwesterlein (My Little Sister) (Stéphanie Chuat, Véronique Reymond)

Berlinale 2020: SCHWESTERLEIN (MY LITTLE SISTER) and BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ
Schwesterlein (My Little Sister) (2020) – source: Vega Film

While the latest entry from directing duo Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond isn’t the most ambitious film in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival this year, Schwesterlein (My Little Sister) is intensely emotional and manages to defy some of the typical tropes bounded to a narrative of this nature. And if nothing else, it serves as yet another vehicle for the great Nina Hoss to demonstrate just how talented an actress she truly is.

At the start of the film, we learn that stage actor Sven (Lars Eidinger) has recently been diagnosed with leukemia. As his disease progresses, she relies on his twin sister Lisa (Hoss) to help him navigate the final act of his shortened life.

Based on its premise, the type of film that Schwesterlein is might appear to be obvious. A dying artist leaning on his sibling’s shoulders during the last days of his life has gratifying melodrama written all over it. And in many respects, the film does manage to fit into this descriptor. But it also goes beyond that and purports to be something much more by diversifying some of its narrative focus to Lisa’s character. As a counterpart to Sven’s brutal reality of facing his own morality, the film also shines a light on the impact this journey has on the person most close to him.

Shifting some of the emotional focus to Lisa’s domestic qualms with her husband, and layering this with her insecurities as a writer as it relates to Sven’s pending demise, was surely a refreshing choice by Chuat and Reymond. This is a film as much about Lisa’s journey, as it is Sven’s. And paramount to the success of this creative choice stemmed from Hoss’ powerhouse performance. I’ve yet to see a bad performance from her and don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Schwesterlein is the type of film that should prove affecting for most viewers, and will hopefully also surprise those who are expecting a conventional tear-jerker piece. And those who aren’t already a fan of the great Nina Hoss will likely undergo a very natural course correction after watching this film.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (Burhan Qurbani)

Berlinale 2020: SCHWESTERLEIN (MY LITTLE SISTER) and BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ
Berlin Alexanderplatz (2020) – source: eOne Germany

Clocking in at more than three hours long, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a staggering crime saga that modernizes Alfred Döblin’s influential novel of the same name. Given the story’s locale, the Berlin International Film Festival was clearly the most fitting place to debut this film. Burhan Qurbani clearly had ambitious goals, but sadly, falters in his delivery of an impactful cinematic experience.

Set in modern-day Berlin, the film follows Francis (Welket Bungué), an undocumented immigrant from West Africa hoping to shake off a life of crime and pursue the ‘German dream’. This proves to be increasingly difficult after he meets Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), a small-time gangster who pulls him right back into his dark past. Things change when Francis falls in love with Mieze (Jella Haase), but this change in heart may ultimately be too late.

The first half of Berlin Alexanderplatz is actually fairly convincing, with Qurbani clearly planting the seeds for a layered gangster narrative. The slow-brewing adversary relationship between Francis and Reinhold starts taking form, while the commentaries on class and power gestate in the background. Bungué and Schuch both prove to be very capable in their respective roles, and the addition of Schuch mid-way through the film serves as the perfect catalyst for their characters to unravel into much darker territories. Dascha Dauenhauer’s score also complements the tonal qualities of the film perfectly, evoking feelings of both mystique and uncertainty that reflects the narrative’s challenging sense of direction.

And in a perfect world, the latter half of the film would capitalize on this early bridge building and bring things to a climactic and satisfying close. Unfortunately, Qurbani isn’t able to stick the landing, and the film becomes increasingly frustrating to watch the closer we get to the finish line. Even though Reinhold’s transition to full on villain territory seems sensible, his protagonist counterpart in the form of Francis feels like a huge mismatch. Despite sitting through close to 2 hours of the film, Francis’ characterization seemingly stalls at the entrance with little to no development at all.

The film’s ambitious thematic closure also proves to be underwhelming, likely a result of the screenplay trying to unpack a few too many things. Qurbani and writing partner Martin Behnke were likely trying to fit in all the complexities present in Döblin’s original book, and that would explain the 3-hour runtime. But partly because of Francis’ failed character development, most of these themes feel half-baked.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a grand and ambitious film that has a great start but simply loses its narrative focus by trying to juggle a few too many things. It’s an unfortunate letdown given the narrative’s very apparent potential.

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