A knockout lead perf by young actress Anna Maria Muehe and a smartly layered script that juggles multiple levels of comprehension make “November Child” a richly rewarding family drama with a difference. East-West emotional road-movie-cum-mystery — in which a young German woman searches for her roots, lost in the country’s former division — reps a confident debut by 30-year-old writer-director Christian Schwochow. Pic opened to very positive reviews in Deutschland Nov. 20 and could have offshore niche potential with careful handling.
By constantly moving between former East Germany and the present day, across a space of 20 years, the film is the first to tackle the emotional scars of the country from both eastern and western perspectives; the fact that Schwochow and Muehe were both born in the east lends the movie extra conviction. And with the 23-year-old actress playing both the title character and (in flashbacks) her young mother, pic has a circular feel that makes the protag’s final sense of closure seem even more satisfying.
A brief title sequence set in 1980 Malchow, north of Berlin, introduces Annalise Kaden (Muehe), an East German woman in her early 20s, as well as the saturated color scheme used in flashbacks to the period. Main story opens in wintry, modern-day Konstanz — in southern Germany, on the border with Switzerland — where Robert (Ulrich Matthes) teaches creative writing but, already in his mid-40s, is still struggling to pen a novel of his own.
By chance, he stumbles on the story of a young woman, Inga (also Muehe), who grew up with her grandparents (Hermann Beyer, Christine Schorn) and was always led to believe that her mother drowned soon after her birth and her father was unknown. Spotting a creative opportunity, Robert hooks up with Inga as she tries to track down the mother she never knew.
Pic cleverly operates on three layers of knowledge about the truth. Robert knows the most, having already done extensive research; Inga knows the least, not realizing she’s yet another example of the West German intelligentsia exploiting an East German’s troubled past. Somewhere in the middle is the viewer, who is slowly fed the truth through fragmented flashbacks to Annalise’s involvement with a young Russian soldier, Alexander (Adrian Topol).
Though the main story is set during chilly November weather in the north and south — sharply caught in iron-gray colors by d.p. Frank Lamm — the film plays warmly on an emotional level. The highly colored flashbacks to Annalise’s youthful love affair contribute to this feeling, but it’s Muehe’s perf as Inga that’s the clincher.
Thesp, who’s the daughter of the late Ulrich Muehe (“The Lives of Others”), and who was so good as the younger sibling in the 2006 “Twisted Sister,” captures both the still, reflective center of the movie and Inga’s wide-eyed determination in a single performance. Matthes’ restrained playing of Robert makes the writer more of a cipher: Script’s only notable weakness is its failure to fully integrate his self-serving character with Inga’s self-exploratory one.
Lamm’s roaming camera, largely handheld and often yielding tight closeups, fits the shifting feel of the unfolding mystery, putting the viewer in the role of an eavesdropper (especially in the ’80s flashbacks). Other credits are pro on what is technically a graduation feature by Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg alum Schwochow.