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Stopped on Track

A German postal worker's precious few months between diagnosis and death are chronicled with an acute and raw sense of honesty in "Stopped on Track."

Cast:
With: Steffi Kuehnert, Milan Peschel, Talisa Lilli Lemke, Mika Nilson Seidel, Ursula Werner, Marie Rosa Tietjen, Otto Mellies, Christine Schorn, Thorsten Merten, Petra Anwar.

A German postal worker’s precious few months between diagnosis and death are chronicled with an acute and raw sense of honesty in “Stopped on Track.” Helmer Andreas Dresen’s latest slice-of-German-life, after such films as “Summer in Berlin” and “Cloud 9,” recounts how an apparently healthy father, and his wife and two kids, try to cope with the man’s ultimately fatal brain tumor. Pic’s standouts are the sharp dialogue, all of it improvised, and ace cast, a mix of thesps and non-pros. Dire subject matter might scare off some arthouse buyers, though fest selections and Euro cable buys are guaranteed.

Like his geriatric sex romp “Cloud 9” (whose female protag, Ursula Werner, has a bit role here), “Stopped on Track” doesn’t have a screenplay credit; the director and regular collaborator Cooky Ziesche came up with an outline of the characters and scenes that were then developed on set with the actors. The process recalls that of Mike Leigh, and the payoff is similar, with dialogue that sounds entirely natural and actors totally at ease with their lines.

Simone (Steffi Kuehnert) and Frank (Milan Peschel) are an average German couple who have just moved into a new home when they learn that Frank has an inoperable brain tumor and only a few months to live. Early hospital scene is one of the film’s strongest, with an impressively held two-shot of a silently crying Simone and a dazed Frank as they listen to the doctor’s clinical explanation.

Bulk of the pic follows the couple’s routine at home in the dark months — also literally, it’s winter — that follow after Frank and Simone finally succeed in breaking the bad news to Mika (Mika Nilson Seidel), their cute 8-year-old son, and Lila (Talisa Lilli Lemke), their diving-fanatic teenage daughter.

As the tumor grows, Frank’s behavior becomes more erratic and even hostile; he also starts forgetting things and having physical problems. This takes its toll not only on Frank but also on those around him. When it is decided the family will opt for home care rather than hospital care, the soothing presence of a kind nurse (Petra Anwar) proves vital.

As in his other portraits of lower-middle class life in the Berlin region, Dresen’s approach is strictly no-frills. Besides an ill-handled nighttime outing to a natatorium and his decision to let Frank use a camera-equipped iPhone as a sort of confessional, the director’s simple focus on the actors and what they say and do delivers impressive results. One of the strongest sequences starts with Frank and Simone simply kissing each other, and expresses far better than any type of flashback everything they used to have and will lose.

Peschel (“Sometime in August”) is impressive in the attention-grabbing role, but Kuehnert, from Dresen’s “Grill Point,” is his equal as a woman who forces herself to cope with an impossible situation. Non-pro child actors are both well cast, with Seidel especially expressive in a wordless scene in which he’s caressed by his bedridden father. Lemke’s last line is a doozy.

Technically, this HD-shot film looks fine, except in the severely underlit pool sequences. Peschel occasionally makes up for the lack of a traditional score, which might have sugarcoated the proceedings too much, by taking out a guitar and accompanying himself, as Frank, on some rock songs.

Stopped on Track

Germany

Production: A Rommel Film production, in association with Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, Arte, Iskremas Filmproduktion. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne.) Produced by Peter Rommel. Directed by Andreas Dresen.

Crew: Camera (HD), Michael Hammon; editor, Joerg Hauschild; production designer, Susanne Hopf; costume designer, Sabine Greunig; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Schmidt. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 15, 2011. Running time: 110 MIN.

With: With: Steffi Kuehnert, Milan Peschel, Talisa Lilli Lemke, Mika Nilson Seidel, Ursula Werner, Marie Rosa Tietjen, Otto Mellies, Christine Schorn, Thorsten Merten, Petra Anwar.

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