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.