“Learning to Lie” injects terrific comic energy into the journey of a young man coming to emotional maturity in the Germany of the ’80s and ’90s. Another slick entry from the X-Filme Creative Pool mini-empire, writer-director Hendrik Handloegten’s adaptation of Frank Goosen’s 2001 novel provides a strong alternative to the continuing morass of stupid growing-up comedies, and hints at a quality commercial German helmer to watch. Pic should play beyond German-lingo territories (where it opened in mid-fall 2003) and, with the right distrib, even in North America.
Pic’s launch-pad is an invigorating sequence narrated by Helmut (Fabian Busch) in which he describes his life of failed romances and the opposite sex’s dogged perception that he’s afraid of commitments. Seg is climaxed with Helmut’s life-changing fall into a street puddle in late September 1998.
With a lighter hand than X-Filme’s star cineaste Tom Tykwer but with his game-like sense of time, the scenario rewinds to Helmut’s high school years when he falls in love at first sight with wily student president and idealistic activist Britta (Susanne Bormann).
A heady field trip to Berlin, with pal Mucke (Florian Lukas, from “Good Bye, Lenin!”) on one side and Britta on the other, heightens Helmut’s passions — and provides Handloegten with a chance to depict Communist-era East Berlin with seamlessly inserted archive footage. Britta, suggesting the control-freak politician she appears destined to become, toys with geeky Helmut’s emotions by going to bed with him but making him keep their relationship secret. Her sudden break from him shoots narrative forward four years, to Helmut’s college years.
Helmut’s chance encounter with Gisela (Fritzi Haberlandt), an old face from high school, leads to his next failed chapter of love including having passionless sex with her sour-faced roommate Barbara (Sophie Rois). A complicated but subtly played triangle under one roof seems to stand for a whole generation’s confused handling of the sexual revolution, and only when Handloegten stresses the point with comments on the election and re-election of conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl does the film overplay its political hand.
As Helmut drifts into the late ’80s with only a lowly parking attendant job to support himself, “Learning to Lie” evolves into a drama as well as a comedy. On one hand, there’s an unexpected affair with a racy sportswriter (Anka Lea Sarstedt) and the ongoing absurdities of visiting his hilariously unhappy parents; on the other, even a seemingly happy relationship with Tina (Birgit Minichmayr) would appear to be doomed, simply based on Helmut’s inability to get over Britta.
A reunion with Britta in Berlin brings pic full circle, and though the story develops a satisfying line of seriousness that marbles the comedy, a happy finale is only partially convincing. More credible is the film’s assured depiction of time’s passage and style changes across the decades, underlined by sharp pop music selections (from Kansas to Dieter Z) and even Helmut’s gradually receding hairline. In this aspect and several others, pic is as pitch-perfect about specific period and place as “Good Bye, Lenin!” is about 1989 East Berlin.
Casting is aces, with the bright-eyed Busch and engaging Bormann leading the way with exceptionally layered perfs. Production package reps German commercial cinema at its best, with standout contributions from production designer Yesim Zolan and lenser Florian Hoffmeister.