Two social mavericks with terminal diseases break out of hospital for a final , glorious journey to the sea in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” a slick, energized road movie that’s another feather in the cap of non-arty New German Cinema. Toplined, co-produced and co-written by local star Til Schweiger, it was Germany’s top local pic (and overall No. 4) this year with a bonny $ 22 million. Offshore potential could be OK, given a reasonable chance and proper marketing by a dedicated distrib.
Martin (Schweiger) and Rudi (Jan Josef Liefers) meet in a clinic where the former is diagnosed as having a brain tumor and the latter cancer. Determined to go out in a blaze of glory rather than rot in bed, the pair bond and, after a tequila bender one night, head north to see the sea, fulfilling a longtime dream of Rudi’s.
Close on their heels, however, are two left-footed hoods (Thierry van Werveke , Moritz Bleibtreu) whose car, containing a million marks, Martin and Rudi have accidentally stolen, and the cops (Leonard Lansink, Ralph Herforth), who are after the escaped patients for holding up a gas station and a bank. As the forces of law and disorder separately close in on the duo, Martin’s brain seizures get worse, and their final destination is more and more in question.
The road movie is already a mini-genre of its own in German cinema, and in some respects the film plays like a male version of Peter Welz’s impressive “Burning Life” (1994), with its themes of escape from a rigid, claustrophobic society and mix of anarchic crime and character-driven drama. Here, however, the direction by Thomas Jahn is altogether much more well-tooled and movie-referential, as well as being packed with cameos by local names (such as Corinna Harfouch as a nurse, Hark Bohm as a psychologist, Christiane Paul as a shop assistant) that confidently mark the film as designed first for a local audience. There’s even a jokey post-roller appearance by German producer Bernd Eichinger, to whom the movie is dedicated, and helmer Jahn plays a cabby outside a theater playing Jahn’s first movie, the low-budget “From Time to Time” (1993).
Given the absence of any real plot, the film hangs on the personalities of Schweiger and Liefers, very different actors who here blend remarkably well. Schweiger unbends his normal matinee-hunk persona into a quite touching, but unsentimental, portrait of a borderline psychotic rebel, with Liefers filling in the more human spaces in the movie. In only his second pic, Jahn inventively keeps the thin plot on the move and visually aware in widescreen. For a film centered on two terminal cases, it’s remarkably upbeat, with a music track that includes Bob Dylan’s titular song. Tech credits are all top-drawer.
Film is also available in a dubbed version which, though well lip-synched, eliminates all cross-cultural ironies by using heavy-duty American voices, most unsuitably for the two comic hoods.