Helmer Andreas Dresen, best known for his gritty portraits of contempo Berlin life (“Night Shapes,” “Policewoman,” “Grill Point”), strikes out in a fresh direction with “Willenbrock,” an engaging, subtly ironic portrait of a middle-class car dealer’s disintegrating personal life. Tip-top casting, led by Dresen regular Axel Prahl in the title role, plus a well-honed script, make this highly accessible fare that deserves upscale distribution beyond the festival circuit.
Film is the first Dresen has adapted from a novel, and it shows. The more regular, structured feel is enhanced by the use of 35mm and nicely composed widescreen — amazingly, by the same d.p., Michael Hammon, who shot the antsy, DV-originated “Grill Point” and the grungy, 16-to-35mm blowup, “Policewoman.” By moving the action from the novel’s setting in Berlin just after the fall of the Wall to an average town in present-day eastern Germany, pic also gains contempo resonances without them becoming the main theme.
Middle-aged Bernd Willenbrock (Prahl), who runs a used-car dealership in Magdeburg, has his life pretty much sorted. Business is good, and he has a second house in the countryside, in addition to a new home in the comfy suburbs away from the town’s unattractive industrial center. Everyone seems to like him.
As he recounts in his opening voiceover, mercurial Bernd has always taken life easily, and seems blessed with women who cut him a lot of slack. His wife, Susanne (Inka Friedrich), silently tolerates his affairs, since he was so consoling when she discovered she couldn’t have kids; and his occasional mistress, married lecturer, Vera (Dagmar Manzel), seems happy to have occasional sex. Now Bernd has his eye on young stunner Anna (Anne Ratte-Polle), daughter of down-on-his-luck Fritz (Tilo Prueckner), whom he offers a job as a night watchman.
Opening reels build up a strong raft of characters, with relationships precisely defined and some lightly comic incidents that sketch Bernd’s universe. One sequence alone, when Bernd and Susanne meet Vera and her husband in a store by chance, bristles with beautifully observed dialogue and playing by all the thesps, as Susanne immediately guesses what’s up.
But life in eastern Germany is no longer as secure as in the old days, with petty crime, led by Central European immigrants, posing a threat to the new bourgeoisie. One night, Bernd and Susanne are driven into blind, violent panic when thieves break into their country retreat, which starts Bernd’s personal life on a spiral downward. The culprits are captured and deported, but the couple fears they’ll return to settle the score. Ultimately, Anna returns the Alfa Romeo he gave her, Vera makes it clear she’s had enough, and Susanne asks for a divorce.
Without letting the film descend into stygian drama, Dresen constructs a highly original template that’s part semi-thriller, part relationships movie and part lightly comic look at a middle-aged philanderer who suddenly feels very much alone.
Largely thanks to its casting, pic is always involving. Prahl, who usually plays rougher characters, is superb as the unlikely but well-meaning Romeo, and Friedrich, when she’s on-screen, is equally good as his patient wife. Their later scenes, underpinned by the audience’s desire for them to get together again, carry quite an emotional charge — as, too, does Anna’s final scene with Bernd, during which it becomes clear to him where his true interests lie.
Tech package is smooth, with Hammon’s lensing making the most of the wintry landscape.