Film Review: ‘Two Lives’

Two Lives Review

Georg Maas' impressive and unusual film locates a very human hook in a John le Carre-style espionage tale.

Stylish, gloomy, tautly constructed and extremely well acted, Georg Maas’ “Two Lives” is an impressive yet unusual attempt to fashion an emotive family drama out of a John le Carre-style premise. It never cuts quite as deeply as it intends, with its stately solemnity and sentimental core failing to fully gel, but it’s nonetheless quite successful in locating a very human hook within the distant aftershocks of the Nazi-era Lebensborn program in Scandinavia. The film opened in Germany last fall, made the Oscar shortlist for best foreign-language film, and could well attract a discerning adult arthouse audience in limited Stateside release.

While nothing here directly resembles a George Smiley novel, “Two Lives” shares with le Carre an interest in the most resolutely unglamorous aspects of espionage, and the weary psychological toll of maintaining deep-cover secrets long after their political purpose has vanished. Opening with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the film centers on Katrine (Juliane Kohler), a young grandmother from an idyllic Norwegian town who, unlike most Norwegian grandmothers, is first seen sneaking into the former East Germany with a wig and an assumed name to scour the archives of old orphanages. International woman of mystery though Katrine may initially seem, her life is actually remarkably domestic, and she quickly returns to her home with a gruffly affectionate submarine-captain husband (Sven Nordin) and a young law-student daughter (Julia Bache-Wiig).

In fact, as far as her family knows, Katrine’s only brush with Cold War politics came decades ago. The daughter of a Norwegian woman and a German soldier, Katrine was taken to Germany in accordance with the Nazi policy of repatriating “racially desirable” wartime babies from Norway into the general German population. Consigned to an orphanage in East Germany after the war’s end, she later escaped to Scandinavia as a teenager and was reunited with her mother (Liv Ullmann, winningly understated in a key supporting role). However, when an idealistic lawyer (Ken Duken) approaches her for testimony in his attempt to earn reparations for Lebensborn-affected families, Katrine grows suspiciously hostile, and is soon taking cloak-and-dagger meetings with a group of German heavies who refer to her as “Vera.”

The film’s slow drip of details (largely illustrated through grainy flashbacks, with Klara Manzel limning the young Katrine) is both carefully structured and strangely distancing. Told primarily through Katrine’s point of view, the film lacks a real audience surrogate to unravel its central mystery, yet the audience is still held in the dark about events of which Katrine is well aware, making for a somewhat ungainly narrative structure and an underwhelming final revelation.

Indeed, the film functions far better as a low-key domestic drama than a Cold War spy tale. Unreliable narrator though Katrine may be, her only real mission involves simply keeping her family together as long-buried secrets threaten to rise to the surface, and the thoroughly excellent Kohler does well to elicit real sympathy for a woman who probably doesn’t deserve it, as well as to suggest the genuine love that can exist even in a familial edifice built upon one lie after another.

Only the second theatrical narrative feature from Maas (after 2003’s “NewFoundLand”), “Two Lives” possesses an impressive sense of place, with a keen eye for gorgeous yet inescapably damp and lonely Scandinavian landscapes and dwellings. The score by Christoph M. Kaiser and Julian Maas incorporates highly effective nods to Samuel Barber early on, before growing somewhat saccharine as the narrative takes a more melodramatic turn. Lensing and other technical contributions are topnotch.

Film Review: 'Two Lives'

Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, January 20, 2014. (In Palm Springs, Gothenburg film festivals; 2013 Berlin, Shanghai, Seattle film festivals.) Running time: 96 MIN. Original title: "Zwei Leben"


(Germany-Norway) A Zinnober Film, Helgeland Film, B&T Film production. Produced by Dieter Zeppenfeld, Axel Gelgeland, Rudi Teichmann.


Directed by Georg Maas. Screenplay, Maas, Christoph Toele, Stale Stein Berg, Judith Kaufmann, from the novel by Hannelore Hippe. Camera (color), Judith Kaufmann; editor, Hansjorg Weissbrich; music, Christoph M. Kaiser, Julian Maas; production designer, Bader El Hindi; art director, Tamara Marini; costume designer, Ute Paffendorf; sound, Thomas Angell Endresen; re-recording mixer, Martin Stever; visual effects, Christian Pingo Schiffler, Adalbert Kaminski; special effects, Andreas Korth; assistant director, Peter Baekkel; casting, Simone Bar, Kjersti Paulsen.


Juliane Kohler, Liv Ullmann, Ken Duken, Rainer Bock, Sven Nordin, Julia Bache-Wiig, Klara Manzel. (German, Norwegian, English dialogue)

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 0

Leave a Reply

No Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

More Film News from Variety