By Christopher Bell | The Playlist October 1, 2011 at 3:20AM
With the recent upsurge in quality TV programming and the ensuing embracement by cinema-goers, it was only a matter of time before film festivals actually started programming pieces originally made for the tube. Both "Carlos" and "The Red Riding Trilogy" were of this ilk; flicks broadcast on the small-screen that retained their cinematic quality but took advantage of the long-form storytelling television provided. "Dreileben," the latest of these undertakings, centers on a murder across three feature films each with their own perspective. Things open innocently with a youthful romance, the loose murderer and subsequent manhunt only lurking in the background. Out of sight, out of mind -- but it only lasts for so long. The second feature involves an out-of-towner psychologist helping with the investigation and the third follows the "villain" himself. Much like 'Red Riding,' this triptych is helmed by different directors: Christian Petzold ("Jerichow"), Dominik Graf ("A Map of the Heart"), and critic Christoph Hochhäusler ("The City Below"), each of them part of the "Berlin School" clique in contemporary German cinema.
Not only is the comparison to the previously mentioned British ternion inevitable, it's also both unfair and unfortunate. 'Riding,' with its scummy exterior, its thrilling mystery unraveling, and its eventual exposé of grand corruption is easy to love and hard to best. "Dreileben" is more small-scale, more erratically structured and composed, and less insistent in wrapping things up neatly (something the former partook in, but did so in an extremely successful and sophisticated way). In short, it's different in almost every way, but because it vaguely involves murder and was done by a trio of filmmakers, it'll be compared (and, true to form, it's mentioned rather heavily so far in this piece).
"Beats Being Dead" probably isn't the best way to open a four-and-a-half hour viewing experience. Intern hospital orderly Johannes (Jacob Matschenz, "A Year Ago in Winter") witnesses a girl being mistreated by a biker gang, and in the process of helping her, he develops an attraction, which after much persistence, is finally returned. But as she becomes clingy and constructs plans to leave Germany together, Johannes loses interest and seeks a romance with his head doctor's daughter. Meanwhile, a murderer (Molesch, played by the excellent Stefan Kurt) is allowed an escorted-leave to visit his mother on her deathbed, but quickly finds a way to escape and prowls in the woods surrounding the rural area.
The focus here is the least interesting part of the plot, and even though it plays sequences smartly with no excess dialogue, it suffers from having a severe lack of ambition. The love story isn't clever, heartwarming, or original enough for the movie to depend on, and the escaped convict never feels like a proper threat as the couple walk around in a carefree (and vulnerable) manner. Petzold doesn't have a hold on the location as well as the other filmmakers do, always seeming to be unsure how to frame the massive forestry and the danger it holds. That said, the director is never pushy with anything and holds a great amount of restraint -- if only the principal relationship didn't feel so familiar, this could've been a lot stronger.
Graf's "Don't Follow Me Around" fares much better, successfully combining a solid investigative mystery with an examination of the bonds between people. Psychologist Jo (Jeanette Hain, "The Reader") is recruited to help the Dreileben police force in their quest to nab Molesch, but while there she also uncovers a corruption among the not-too-swift local law enforcement. During her stint in town, Jo catches up with college buddy Vera (Susanne Wolff, "Maria Stuart") and bonds with her pulp novelist husband Bruno (Misel Maticevic, "In The Shadows"). The three get along great until the ladies realize they had both courted the same guy at the same time back in the day -- a conversation that causes Vera to seek him out and leave her own spouse in the dust. This puts a strain on the already insecure Bruno, and Jo ends up as his emotional support -- not exactly an ideal situation with a mentally disabled killer on the loose and a legion of corrupt cops watching your every move.
This filmmaker utilizes the dreariness and boundless forestry to invoke a constant distrust of the area, leading to a sense of unease coating nearly every scene. Characters are difficult to pin down (which is certainly refreshing after the mostly predictable love story of 'Beats'), rarely ever saying what they mean and often going through with selfish, scummy, yet extremely human actions. It's this dedication that keeps what is essentially a love-triangle from ever feeling rote, and it also gives the more invigorating detective scenes an extra layer of discomfort. Interestingly enough, the central plot is wrapped up in this installment, allowing the last movie the freedom it wouldn't have had if it was forced to lead towards a tidy finale.
Molesch pops up from time to time in the preceding two, but "One Minute of Darkness" puts him right in the spotlight, starting from his handcuffed ride to the hospital and settling for most of its duration in the menacing backwoods that have stood by ominously since we began this endeavor. The man, suffering from undisclosed mental disabilities and in a situation he couldn't possibly comprehend, handles his fugitive state as if he were an eight year old left on his own. He plays, talks to himself, steals food, and lays in the grass -- but there's also the sinister side to him, one that surfaces occasionally when he's wandering somewhere (or nowhere) with a look of purpose on his face. Along his travels he meets a runaway child, forming a brief friendship and creating a sequence that is thankfully more peculiar than it is cute or sentimental. Meanwhile, officer Marcus (Eberhard Kirchberg) busies himself by studying Molesch and his case, hoping to find some sort of lead on how to catch him; a dedication that only bruises his family life and affects his health (the cop is slowly going deaf). As Marcus scrutinizes the security-camera evidence tape of his co-star killing someone (with a mysterious loss of video during the offing), he realizes that the man may not actually be guilty -- leading to another suspect, and giving our other lead another opportunity for manslaughter.
'Darkness' is both character study and nerve-wracking thriller, finding as much fascination in its quieter moments as it does in its vigorous chases and murders. Centering on a character like Molesch is difficult -- any sort of fumble and he can instantly become an offensive caricature, thus not only dousing the plot's fire but deflating any momentum the two movies have already built up. Thankfully, the performance and the direction are spot-on, and the "villain" never overplays his behavior (certain challenges, such as his penchant for talking to himself, is kept to an effective minimum and never crosses the line into hokiness). He's more intimidating in his silence and child-like nature, full of the naivety a kid would have but with enough screws loose to be frightening. Since a lot of the flick is dedicated to him, a good deal of this film is constructed without dialogue with a heavy emphasis on sound design, from leaves crunching under the unseen cops' feet to the wind blowing through the branches of the massive, towering trees. At one point, Molesch gazes into a mirror with intrigue, tapping on the glass with his finger -- each touch penetratingly loud.
Thanks to the proper conclusion happening in the middle flick, Hochhäusler instead drives to something more appropriate for the series's ultimate end. It's a startling, heavy punctuation; memorable but hard to swallow in the best way possible.
"Dreileben" is not an epic story. A term like that is generally saved for adventures that are years long or involve arduous journeying. Instead of offering something like that, these three German filmmakers have given us a very dense, abstruse, enclosed saga; full of knotty liaisons and unsolved conflicts (the police, for example, never get their due after blackmailing local businesses and threatening Jo to not pry into things). The trilogy's connective tissue also goes deeper than wink-wink cameos and instead serve as metaphors of some kind. Coincidences are played with often (some big, some small, some even unnoticeable) and certain elements/traits, such as deafness, carry over to different characters and situations. Rather than composing a grand narrative, the directors went above and beyond to provide a wealth of substance and meaning -- a near five-hour experience primed for dissection if you're brave enough. It's an intimidating undertaking, but you're not likely to see something so accomplished and odd in a different package.
Part One: Beats Being Dead [B-]
Part Two: Don't Follow Me Around [B+]
Part Three: One Minute of Darkness [A]
"Dreileben" Series [A-]