A highly worked cat-and-mouse neo-noir with a slight smirk on its face, “Long Hello and Short Goodbye” reps good, pure entertainment for those who like filmic chess games, but it won’t deliver for those in search of believable or engaging characters. On a purely technical level, however, this is impressive, sexy filmmaking, with offshore distribution a possibility and exposure at broad-minded fests, where genre fans should lap it up, strongly signaled.
It’s certainly another notable career ratchet-up for director Rainer Kaufmann , whose smooth relationships ensembler “Talk of the Town” (1995) helped to kickstart the present revival in German cinema, and whose subsequent black comedy, “The Pharmacist” (1997), drew appreciative auds at fests prepared to show quality mainstream fare. Though the visual virtuosity in the latter often recalled Brian De Palma in its widescreen antics, “Long Hello” leaves that movie eating dust.
Like several New German movies in recent years, pic has Yank input on the writing side and even opts for an original title in English. The project came out of a meeting between Studio Hamburg producer Henrik Meyer (who’d worked with Kaufmann on “Talk of the Town”) with a WB exec during the ’97 Sundance fest. Next thing, Meyer received a screenplay by Jeff Vintar, at the time attached to two comic-book adaptations (WB’s “Speed Racer,” Fox’s “Iron Man”) that remain in development. Translation and rewrite were done by Berlin-based Martin Rauhaus.
Set in Hamburg, the labyrinthine plot opens near its end, with supine bodies strewn around a fancy apartment and a young man, Ben (Marc Hosemann), bleeding on the floor. There has clearly been some major shootout.
A caption, “Three Weeks Previously,” whisks the viewer back to the start, though not for any gradual cranking up of the plot. Pic goes straight to what appears to be a drug handover — until a young blonde (Nicolette Krebitz) pulls a gun, the cops burst in, and it’s revealed as a setup. Style is typical of the movie to come, which is plastered with non sequiturs and further flashbacks, lack of precise detail in characters’ backgrounds and so on. The game and the style are the thing.
The blonde turns out to be Melody, whom senior cop Kahnitz (Dietrich Hollinderbaumer, oozing menace and evil) blackmails into helping him re-nail Ben , a safecracker about to come out of jail. Melody picks up Ben outside the prison, claiming to be a friend of Dennis (Martin Gladde), who escaped capture on the safe job, and together they drive to Dennis’ vacant apartment. Though Kahnitz’s plan is for her to get close to Ben, inveigle him into doing another job and then betray him, Melody in fact makes little secret of the fact that it could all be a setup. Intrigued, Ben plays along.
Between sexually hooking up with Ben, Melody arranges for him to meet couple-for-hire Percy and Aurelia (Axel Milberg, Sunnyi Melles), key components in the safecracking job that Kahnitz has lined up. Everything gets extremely complicated, however, when no one in the game acts like they should, and even Kahnitz goes off the rails. Only at the very end is it revealed why the cop had such a personal vendetta against Ben.
Best performances come from Melles and the experienced Milberg as the odd, middle-aged couple, whose light comedy brings some relief to the otherwise humorless goings-on, and from the striking Krebitz, who floats through the movie as a young woman in absolute control — very different from her role as the youngest of the three female cons in “Bandits.” Her sack scenes with Hosemann carry a real charge, though little thanks to her fellow thesp, who spends most of the film just glowering intensely. Other roles are well cast, with Katja Riemann, the lead in Kaufmann’s two previous pics, popping up in a jokey support as a hit woman.
Helmer wraps the whole confection in a seductive widescreen style that makes obvious use of split compositions, vertiginous camerawork and other visual gymnastics, as well as far subtler, less obvious use of shifting depth-of-field within a shot. It’s a look that will either gratify or grate, though undoubtedly fits the cool calculation of the whole movie. Plangent bass-guitar music further adds to the noir tone.