Big emotional themes come hidden in a deceptively small package in “Longing,” a mightily impressive feature debut by German writer-director Valeska Grisebach. Story of an average guy who suddenly finds himself in love with two women — his wife and a waitress — strips back the plot to operate at an almost purely metaphysical level, to slow-burning but powerful impact. Strong critical support and fest kudos could propel this to niche biz on the arthouse circuit.
Former documaker Grisebach’s first nonfiction film, the 62-minute short feature “Be My Star” (2001), exactly captured the earth-shattering moment of a 14-year-old girl’s first love affair. “Longing,” which also uses non-pros and a simple, unaffected shooting style, centers on a similar emotional earthquake in the lives of some rural thirtysomethings.
Markus Koplin (Andreas Mueller) has his own, one-man metalworking business in Zuehlen, a placid burg not far from Berlin. His wife, Ella (Ilka Welz), is his childhood sweetheart, and they seem set for a totally unexceptional but devoted life together. Markus is shaken, however, when he happens by the scene of an apparent suicide.
Markus belongs to the local volunteer fire brigade, which goes off one weekend for a training sesh in another small town. After a heavy-drinking group dinner in a local eatery, Markus wakes up the next morning in the apartment of the waitress, Rose (Anett Dornbusch), unable to remember even if they had sex. But judging by the tender smile on her face, they did, and it was good. More to the point, both have been hit by Eros’ arrows.
Grisebach’s shooting style, somewhere between a good-looking documentary and the character-driven, observational approach of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, sneaks up on the audience in a mysterious way. The prelude to Markus and Rose’s night together is simply a long take, in medium shot, of Markus dancing in the restaurant, seemingly alone. Their meeting and all that followed is never shown, only the morning after — and even then there’s hardly any dialogue.
In one of the pic’s many delightful touches, Grisebach briefly cuts back to Ella, who for no apparent reason starts to cry. It’s almost as if, without even realizing it herself, her emotional seismograph has felt a tremor from Markus’ infidelity.
When Markus returns, Ella is literally waiting at the door. And in the film’s first demonstration of physical longing, they embrace, with her whispering, “Sleep with me.”
Magic of the picture is that, even though Grisebach is in no hurry to tell her story, and simply skips many of the big emotional moments in the meller-like plot, “Longing” never becomes either arty-tiresome or over poetic in a metaphysical, Gallic way. There’s just the right amount of information for the viewer to become engaged. And thanks to the three strikingly well-cast leads, in whose faces the whole picture resides, Grisebach brings the whole thing off in a trim 85 minutes, with a neat, unexpected coda that puts the whole story into a different perspective.
It’s almost invidious to single out one perf, though Welz, as the wife, is especially moving as the small-town woman who’s love for her husband is so real you can almost touch it. Dornbusch packs a lot into relatively few scenes and sparse dialogue, while Mueller (a real-life volunteer fireman) suggests emotional turmoil with the smallest looks.
Pic was actually inspired by a real-life story Grisebach heard about in a village in France.