Private and professional spheres clash violently in Christoph Hochhausler’s otherwise solemn Teuton drama “The City Below.” Impressively assembled and acted, helmer’s third outing after “This Very Moment” and “Low Profile” offers a clinical but always interesting observation of an illicit affair against the backdrop of the Frankfurt banking world. Serious-minded arthouse item, which could have used a bit more of the dark humor that only occasionally surfaces, goes out in Deutschland in October and should love up to other fests after its Cannes preem.
Helmer’s first drama with only adult protags focuses on Svenja Steve (Nicolette Krebitz), the jobless wife of white-collar worker Olli (Mark Waschke). They have just relocated to Frankfurt for Olli’s new job at Lobau Bank when, by chance, the mercurial Svenja runs into the CEO of Lobau, Roland Cordes (Robert Hunger-Buehler). Sequence, involving the accidental exchange of a cigarette, is one of the many observant and strongly directed scenes that show off Hochhausler’s strong visual shorthand, painting his characters and the singular worlds they inhabit in a just a few shots.
The couple’s second chance meeting finally leads to a hotel room, though they don’t sleep together — yet. At a recital at Roland’s home attended by the Steves, the CEO verbalizes his desire to bed the mysterious woman, though she warns him he can’t always get what he wants. Except that he can: A job in Indonesia that’s become available after one of Lobau’s executives was murdered there unexpectedly goes to new arrival Olli, who immediately leaves for six months, leaving Svenja in Frankfurt.
Perceptive screenplay, by Ulrich Peltzer and the director, suggests that it is almost impossible to really know people because often they themselves don’t know the reasoning behind the things they do. Some of the characters’ more unusual behavioral traits, such as Roland’s obsession with drug users, are never explained, which underlines the helmer’s point but also makes it an emotionally cold film in which auds may observe but never really identify with the characters.
The movie also offers a picture of a globalized industrial and corporate world that leaves little room for establishing a separate private life (Roland’s always working, while Olli moves for his job to Frankfurt, then Jakarta), perhaps making it necessary for today’s power players to have illicit affairs or do illogical things just to be reminded they are still alive (a big-business variation on Hochhausler’s main theme in “Low Profile”).
Thesping is solid, with the steely Hunger-Buehler finding a formidable opponent in Krebitz, who incisively captures a woman who finds empowerment in doing things on a whim. Van-Lam Vissay impresses in a small role as a passed-over colleague of Olli’s.
Sharp widescreen lensing by Bernhard Keller as well as Tim Pannen’s production design emphasize the deceptive transparency of the glass-and-steel skyscrapers of the Frankfurt banking district. Cold colors are used throughout, with the notable exception of a hotel where Svenja and Roland make love.
Editor Stephan Stabenow’s cutting is equally solid, alternating scenes that immediately build on what has come before with sequences that initially seem unconnected, creating a staccato rhythm that suggests that private lives are just as volatile as the stock market. Benedikt Schiefer’s sparingly used score, mainly shrill strings, adds to the general feeling of unease.