A spy story a la "The Lives of Others," this well-crafted drama serves as a reasonably engrossing showcase for some of Germany's best young actors

A spy story set in the later days of the German Democratic Republic, a la “The Lives of Others,” “Shores of Hope” stars Alexander Fehling and August Diehl as would-be sailors whose lives take a very long, increasingly grim detour on dry land. This well-crafted drama, also toplining Ronald Zehrfeld (“Barbara”), serves as a reasonably engrossing showcase for some of Germany’s best young actors. But the more distinctive story and atmospheric elements of “Others” prove elusive in a film that never quite transcends the feel of a carefully tooled star vehicle. Already released in German-speaking Europe, the film will likely travel farther as a quality smallscreen item.

Best friends since they can remember, Cornelis, aka Conny (Fehling), and Andreas, aka Andi (Diehl), reach 1980 Rostock — East Germany’s only international port — full of hope they’ll soon travel the world as merchant seamen. What they haven’t grasped is that orphans like themselves are the last people who would ever get government clearance, as they’re considered a high defection risk. So the two reluctantly settle into hopefully temporary careers as longshoremen.

Their genial supervisor, Schonherr (Zehrfeld), is a private dissident who plans to smuggle himself and his young family out to the West. But Stasi agents have caught wind of that, offering the younger men their dreamed-of shipboard jobs if they rat the boss out; Andi is tempted, but Conny refuses to betray a friend for personal gain. Nonetheless, Schonherr is nabbed, and Conny suspects Andi pointed the finger. During their argument, Andi accidentally steps in front of a moving vehicle and is seriously hurt.

Disillusioned, his pal in a coma, Conny decides to defect as well with girlfriend Mai (Phuong Thao Vu), a visiting student from Vietnam who would be deported if their romance were discovered. They don’t get far before they’re forced to separate, and Conny winds up in a political prisoners’ cell with Schonherr, under the thumb of a “Red Terror” warden (Thomas Lawincky) who clearly relishes punishing such “scum.” Meanwhile, Andi has survived, though he’ll never walk again.

As reward for his various betrayals born of greed and jealousy, Andi is given a cushy, if lonely and disturbing, job in residence at a handsome country house, monitoring hidden cameras planted to catch various folk betraying State secrets (or just their spouses). Feeling guilty toward Conny, he plays a tricky (and sometimes viewer-confusing) shell game to secretly help his friend’s cause. Lingering tension comes from the fact that both men are at the mercy of a repressive system happy to turn them against one another.

Properly somber in tone but robust in production polish, “Shores of Hope” reps a big professional leap for helmer/co-writer Toke Constantin Hebbein after his microbudget fantasy debut, “Nevermore.” But the new film’s confident handling can’t entirely cover a formulaic tinge to the leads’ good-boy/bad-boy dynamic or the uninspiring romantic thread. Nonetheless, thesping carries the day: Diehl, wet-haired and weaselly like a junior John Casale, is aptly pathetic. It’s the showier role, yet ultimately the pic belongs to Fehling, who again proves his fast rise to be no flash in the pan. His final, largely silent scenes have an emotional heft that the actor provides almost single-handedly, with consummate grace.

Assembly is first-rate, with muted colors in the design package and an effectively melancholy score by Nic Raine. That last freeze-frame should be unfrozen for a simple fadeout, though.

Shores of Hope

Germany

Production

A Beta Cinema presentation of a UFA Cinema and Frisbeefilms production in association with BR, Degeto, SWR, BR/Arte and SR. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Munich.) Produced by Nico Hofmann, Ariane Krampe, Jurgen Schuster, Manuel Bickenbach, Alexander Bichenback. Executive producer, Sebastian Werninger. Co-producers, Bettina Reitz, Hans-Wolfgang Jurgan. Directed by Toke Constantin Hebbein. Screenplay, Ronny Schalk, Hebbein.

Crew

Camera (color), Felix Novo de Oliveira; editor, Simon Blasi; music, Nic Raine; production designer, Lars Lange; set decorator, Isabel von Forster; costume designer, Judith Holste; sound, Erich Lutz; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Andre Bendocchi-Alves; assistant director, Lars Gmehling; casting, Simone Bar. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival (World Cinema Now), Jan. 4, 2013. (Also in Munich, Toronto film festivals.) Running time: 116 MIN.

With

Alexander Fehling, August Diehl, Ronald Zehrfeld, Phuong Thao Vu, Annika Blendl, Sylvester Groth, Rolf Hoppe, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Thomas Lawincky, Sebastian Hulk, Johann Jurgens, Michael Weisner, Michael Schenk. (German, Vietnamese dialogue)

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