An extremely engaging tale of life and love in a city where everything appears to be in a state of flux, Wolfgang Becker’s “Life Is All You Get” is a smartly written and sharply observed comedy-drama. At its frequent best, pic has a fresh and larky charm that’s reminiscent of fondly remembered French New Wave romances. Jurgen Vogel’s marquee allure should attract German auds. Offshore ticketbuyers may respond with equal enthusiasm.
Vogel is well cast as Jan Nebel, an aimless Gen-Xer who literally runs into Miss Right while walking home from a disastrous one-night stand. Unfortunately, he meets Vera (Christine Paul) in the middle of a Berlin street riot. Even more unfortunately, he accidentally knocks down two plain-clothes cops who are pursuing her. Before he’s arrested, however, he manages to make a good impression on the beautiful young woman.
The following day, Jan is slapped with a hefty fine and fired from his job at a slaughterhouse. Worse, he discovers that a former lover may be HIV-positive. She advises Jan to get a blood test, but he’s reluctant to have his worst fears confirmed.
Jan gets another unwelcome reminder of mortality when he visits his father, only to find the old man has dropped dead over his kitchen table. Jan gives it a positive spin —he had been living in a tiny apartment with his sister, Lilo (Martina Gedeck), her young daughter, Jenni (Rebecca Hessing), and Harri (Armin Rohde), Lilo’s boisterous boyfriend. Genuinely saddened by his father’s passing, but he’s also grateful for the opportunity to take over the newly vacant apartment.
To share expenses, Jan takes on a roommate: Buddy (Ricky Tomlinson), a 49-year-old Buddy Holly fan who worked with Jan at the slaughterhouse. Older and slightly wiser, Buddy warns his friend to take heed of time’s passing. “When I was younger,” he tells Jan, “I kept waiting for my life to get started. But it just keep going on.”
Buddy’s words would be appropriate for many of the characters in “Life Is All You Get.” Just about everywhere director Becker turns his camera, workmen are repainting, repairing and otherwise renovating post-Cold War Berlin. And as these laborers go about the business of reinventing the reunited city, Jan, Vera and others take their first tentative steps toward getting on with the rest of their lives. The possibilities — and the dangers — appear endless.
(Pic’s original — and more appropriate — German title, “Das Leben Ist Eine Baustelle,” translates as “Life is a Construction Site.”)
Jan and Vera are reunited, and begin a passionate affair. Right from the start, Becker emphasizes that they practice safe sex. But Jan remains reluctant to have a blood test. And Vera holds back from making a full-scale commitment. Little Jenni is upset that her Uncle Jan has moved out. And Buddy is greatly depressed by the news that his favorite rock ‘n’ roll club, located in the former East zone, will soon be closed by the building’s new owners.
Becker subtly sustains a sense of narrative momentum throughout his loosely plotted pic. “Life Is All You Get” skips nimbly from incident to incident, subplot to subplot, with playful vitality and refreshing spontaneity. And while the pic isn’t unwilling to touch on such weighty matters as death, AIDS and rising unemployment, the overall mood is one of willed optimism in the face of an uncertain future.
Vogel makes a winning impression with his self-effacing humor and seriocomic vulnerability. He’s also unexpectedly adept at physical comedy, particularly when he gets a job wearing a bird costume to promote a supermarket.
As Vera, Paul attractively conveys wit, intelligence and sensuality, along with a provocative smidgen of mystery. Tomlinson is an endearing teddy bear as Buddy. Christina Papamichou is affectingly sweet as Kristina, a young Greek woman who comes to Berlin in search of her brother, and winds up staying with Buddy and Jan.
Cinematographer Martin Kukula and production designer Mathias Schwerbrock do a fine job of capturing the look and feel of a city in transition. Other tech credits are first-rate.