The literal rise and fall of the Berlin Wall forms the core of Berlin fest curtain raiser (and German Oscar submission) “The Promise.” Across nearly three decades of political turmoil, filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta chronicles the life and times of the divided city as seen from the perspective of two lovers. It’s an uncharacteristically emotional effort for von Trotta and arguably her best and most commercial outing.
Film is certain to hit a vital nerve with European viewers and should score well in specialized U.S. unspoolings where character and romance prevail. In many key ways it resembles “The Way We Were” without quite descending into the bowels of romantic sentimentality. Or, one could dub the provocative, intelligent pic “A Man and a Woman and a Wall.”
“The Promise” opens with the construction (via stock footage) of the Wall in August 1961. On its Eastern side, a group of young adults is listening to rock ‘n’ roll and planning to escape using the sewer system. Sophie (Meret Becker) has an aunt on the other side who will sponsor the young people. For the young woman and Konrad (Anian Zollner), it seems the only possibility for a future together.
The dream, however, is fated to dissolve. As the others wend their way through the underground maze, Konrad trips on his shoelace and opts to become the rear guard. He later fumbles a chance to be ferried across by a “coyote” sent by Sophie.
On one level, the two are contemporary star-crossed lovers. Still, without overstating ideologies, the young man harbors tremendous ambivalence about the Western system. And the oft-heard mantra about the stone curtain is that it will soon come tumbling down.
Seven years pass before they are reunited, during the Prague Spring. Konrad is a delegate at a scientific conference and Sophie travels to the Czech capital duringthe period of political relaxation. They vent their anger and blame each other but conclude that Prague is a place where they can find mutual peace and happiness. A moment later, Soviet tanks arrive and plow down the scenario.
When the two meet next in 1980, the Wall has become a fixture of the landscape. Each has married, Sophie has a son, and both are cloaked in sadness, somehow victimized by living separate lives.
Story sounds considerably more fatalistic and schematic than what’s on view. Von Trotta and co-scenarist Peter Schneider have deftly constructed a love story that hits all the social and political touchstones of three decades. Certainlythese events have a keen effect on the meetings and partings of Sophie and Konrad. But the two aren’t merely tossed about amid the hurly-burly; they make conscious, often tragic decisions that inform us of time and character.
Pic is divided into four sections. Characters seen in episodes set in 1961 and 1968 are played by different actors when the drama continues in 1980 and in 1989, when Berlin experiences the Jericho effect. The matching of performers is particularly adroit for Sophie and Konrad,who begin with the eagerness and fire of youth (Becker, Zollner) and graduate to adults (Corinna Harfouch, August Zirner) invested with experience andplagued by doubt. The depth of performance and passion for subject matter keeps what might have been turgid soap opera afloat and buoyant. In addition to the central duo, there are sterling turns from such veteran German thesps as Eva Mattes, Otto Sander and Hark Bohm.
Handsomely crafted, the re-creation and evocation of the divided city is particularly chilling without being obvious.
The tacit pact of “The Promise,” consummated or otherwise, proves extremely potent material. It seems an odd choice for von Trotta, but her immersion in the pastiche of character, emotion and the sweep of history is nothing less than wholehearted.