The Architect (Der Architekt)
Directed by: Ina Weisse
Starring: Josef Bierbichler, Hilde Van Mieghem, Matthias Schweighöfer, Sandra Hüller, Sophie Rois, Lucas Zolgar
Run Time: 93 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
In German with English subtitles
A woman trudges through the mountain snow to a house high up in the Alps and calls out, “Maria.” The woman finds Maria dead-an old woman has died home alone. The scene jump cuts to an urban interior, where a man receives a phone call informing him his mother has died. The man hangs up the receiver without a word to the caller.
Georg Winter (Josef Bierbichler, who also starred in “Winterreise,” 2006) is a successful, middle-aged Hamburg architect, about to be recognized for his life-long work at an awards dinner. As an architect, Georg explains at the dinner, he has the good fortune of “measuring every completed building against the rightness of his original idea.” And yet Georg, the viewer immediately sees, is all jagged edges with other people. He expresses disdain for the mindless small talk around the banquet table, and not so deftly deflects an insult he makes at a dithering tablemate.
Georg appears to be the aloof Prussian patriarch, at some emotional remove from his wife, his nearly adult children, and all of his dinner companions paying him tribute. A paradox emerges, and the viewer immediately wonders about the architecture of the life Georg has built for himself.
Georg resists, then assents to his wife’s desire for the whole family to attend his mother’s funeral up in the Alps. Reluctant hostages to each other’s company, wife Eva (Hilde Van Mieghem, who appeared in Soderbergh’s 1991 “Kafka”), son Jan (Matthias Schweighöfer), and daughter Reh (Sandra Hüller) and Georg move through a fog-filled snow storm, and soon find themselves marooned in a snowdrift just before they reach Maria’s house. It’s as if each person, navigating through his or her own cold, murky landscape, has crashed into the snow bank of their dysfunctional family dynamic.
As Georg navigates through his secret past life-who are Hanna (Sophie Rois) and her son Alex (Lucas Zolgar) to him?-and the sometimes Freudian secrets of his current life, each character is stripped to their architectural bare bones. Like the ever-present snow, long held silences fail to shelter anyone. In a symbolically rich family sauna scene, the Winters strip bare and romp through the snow naked together.
Director Ina Weisse delivers a competent and engaging anatomy of a middle-class life in Germany, of contemporary alienation, and of the disintegration of a nuclear family. Matthias Schweighöfer’s and Sandra Hüller’s portrayals of young adults, overdue for leaving the family nest, are particularly engaging. Georg’s relationships with the women in his life-his mother, his wife Eva, and the local Hanna-are hauntingly and numbingly broken.
The alpine landscapes and snowbound interiors lend a claustrophobic atmosphere-everyone huddles inside, against their desires, to avoid freezing to death in the coldness of their truths laid bare outside. This is a bleak tale of despair, which the Germans are so good at.
“The Architect” is being screened as part of “German Gems: A Weekend of New German Cinema,” playing at San Francisco’s Castro Theater January 14th to 16th. For a complete program and further information, visit www.germangems.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.