Life is a long, bittersweet river for two middle-aged losers drifting along the Elbe in “Down The River.” Gently paced and sporting a firm sense of character arc and dramatic destination, the pic may be a little too languid to generate bust-out biz, though its earthy qualities should attract discerning auds. World preemed at Munich, Marco Mittelstaedt’s feature bow (following 2003 telefeature “Jena Paradies”) is likely to find moorings primarily on the fest circuit and tube outlets.
The river stretching from the Czech Republic to Hamburg — and once forming part of the border between divided Germanys — is the third party binding Kowsky (Henning Peker) and Gero (Tom Jahn). A gap-toothed, Billy Bob Thornton lookalike, Pecker’s Kowsky is the dreamer of the two, who’ve lost their jobs as Dresden boatmen. A gambler full of tales about big money opportunities in Hamburg has convinced down-to-earth Gero to pilot his vessel toward the North Sea port.
Taking well measured time to hint at baggage both men have in Dresden and elsewhere, the drama peels back the layers to reveal what’s behind Kowsky’s jumpy enthusiasm and Gero’s seemingly dour countenance.
The best part of Holger Nickel’s screenplay is the sophisticated delineation of Kowsky and Gero’s relationship. Far from being bosom buddies out on a jaunt, the friendship is born more out of loneliness and quiet despair, with each man wondering at times just why he’s hanging around with the other. Male reticence to articulate emotional needs is the theme here, with thesps impressively up to the mark as barriers are slowly dismantled.
Though essentially a two hander, pic drops anchor long enough for Gero to tentatively approach daughter Sara (Vilma Fischer), and for Kowsky’s card-playing proclivities to create ongoing trouble with some backroom bar heavies.
Lensing the river at both its most beautiful and least attractive, d.p Andreas Hofer’s camerawork is a hymn to the inspiration the Elbe has supplied to generations of painters and writers, and a gritty depiction of those who live and work on it.
Other tech standout is Lars Lohn’s score. Bobbing along with jew’s harp and jangly bluegrass guitar, the music lends a kind-of Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn atmosphere to the film, albeit one filtered through much wearier eyes.