A distraught drama student is told she's invisible by her teacher just before a famous theater director casts her in a demanding lead role in "Cracks in the Shell."

A distraught drama student is told she’s invisible by her teacher just before a famous theater director casts her in a demanding lead role in “Cracks in the Shell.” Solid sophomore feature by German scribe-helmer Christian Schwochow (“November Child”) stars ace Danish thesp Stine Fischer Christensen (“After the Wedding”) in a challenging role of her own, though the well-made psychosexual drama never quite shakes off the impression it’s a Teuton “Black Swan” minus the pointe shoes and Tchaikovsky score. Actress prize at the recent Karlovy Vary fest should help pic get noticed offshore.

After a childhood spent in Denmark with her father, aspiring Danish-German actress Fine (Christensen) has returned to Deutschland to attend drama school and live with her mother (Dagmar Manzel) and mentally handicapped sister, Jule (Christina Drechsler). It’s clear that acting is a means of escape for the dark-haired young girl; her life at home becomes so emotionally draining and tiring that she accidentally falls asleep onstage during a performance.

Her high-strung drama teacher, Ben (Ulrich Matthes), tells her it doesn’t matter since she’s invisible onstage anyway, just before she’s offered a chance to audition for a small role in the latest production of the famous and famously demanding director Kaspar Friedmann (Ulrich Noethen). The revealing audition scene, performed in accented German and fluent Danish, reveals how talented Fine and Christensen are, and the former unexpectedly lands the coveted lead role of Camille. Ben and Fine’s drama-school classmates are all stunned: What does Kaspar see in this insecure and mousey little girl?

The bulk of the pic details the play’s rehearsal process, which dovetails with Fine’s gradual transformation into Camille and her growing attachment to the extremely exacting Kaspar. Using Camille’s blond, helmet-cut wig, the virginal Fine tries on her alter ego’s sexually aggressive persona in real life, as she starts pursuing a handsome neighbor, Joachim (Ronald Zehrfeld). This storyline’s development could have used a bit more originality, though Joachim’s line of work, tunnel building, reps a nice touch.

Schwochow, co-screenwriter Heide Schwochow and editor Jens Klueber’s careful parceling out of info reps another plus, as the pic only slowly reveals why, beyond an impressive audition, Kaspar chose Fine for the role of a promiscuous young woman living on the edge of madness.

“Cracks” probably went into production before “Black Swan” was released last year, though the many similarities between the two films, which both explore the necessity and many dangers of artistic abandon, are hard to deny. That sensation of deja vu aside, pic is otherwise strong, with Schwochow also working in some sardonic commentary on drama-school classes and diva behavior (in a scene with an uncredited Corinna Harfouch).

Christensen is decidedly the main attraction here, demonstrating that the powerful impression she left in “After the Wedding” was no fluke. The fact that her German isn’t entirely flawless helps underline her character’s insecurity and sets her apart from her peers, while the complex dual role allows her to go through a stunning array of emotions.

After his stellar work with Anna Maria Muehe in “November Child” and now Christensen’s turn, young Euro actresses should be lining up to work under Schwochow’s direction, though hopefully for them, the role of Kaspar, in which Noethen easily holds his own, is not too autobiographical.

Technically, the pic is equally sturdy, from its dynamic and fluid widescreen lensing to its sober, precise score. Original title translates as “The Invisible Person,” a clear reference to the remarks of Fine’s teacher.

Cracks in the Shell

Germany

Production

A Falcom Media release of a Teamworx Television & Film production, in association with Arte, SWR, RBB, with participation of Berliner Union-Film, Media Factory Berlin, Sommerhaus Filmproduktionen. (International sales: Bavaria Film Intl., Geiselgasteig, Germany.) Produced by Jochen Laube, Fabian Maubach. Directed by Christian Schwochow. Screenplay, Heide Schwochow, Christian Schwochow.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm, widescreen), Frank Lamm; editor, Jens Klueber; music, Can Erdogan; production designer, Kobita Syed; costume designer, Kristin Schuster; sound (Dolby Digital), Guenter Friedhoff; casting, Anja Dihrberg. Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (competing), July 3, 2011. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Stine Fischer Christensen, Ulrich Noethen, Dagmar Manzel, Ronald Zehrfeld, Christina Drechsler, Anna Maria Muehe, Corinna Harfouch, Ulrich Matthes. (German, Danish dialogue)

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