Sensitively drawn and lensed with special attention to characterization and tone, Andrea Staka’s Golden Leopard winner “Fraulein” introduces a strong new voice in Swiss cinema. Informed by the helmer’s background as a Swiss citizen of Bosnian and Croatian heritage, story explores questions of nationality, immigration and generational differences through the lives of three women from the former Yugoslavia living in Zurich. Seemingly tailor-made for multicultural production house Dschoint Ventschr, pic is bound to make an impact on the fest circuit, and may springboard onto Euro cinemas with a fighting chance of play Stateside.
Pic’s focus on women struggling in a new society and its Balkan overtones make it a natural for the involvement of multi-hatter Barbara Albert, credited here as script collaborator. Albert, originally slated for jury duty at Locarno, recused herself once “Fraulein” was announced in competish.
Helmer Staka opens on the character Ruza (Mirjana Karanovic), showing a close-up of the marks made by her too-tight wristwatch, the perfect shorthand for her rigidly structured existence. A 50-year-old immigrant from Belgrade, Ruza runs a cafeteria with no-nonsense precision and cold efficiency.
The waitress is Mila (Ljubica Jovic), an older woman with an open smile who dreams of retiring to a house she and husband Ante (Zdenko Jelcic) are building in Croatia.
Interrupting what has become an ordered and unquestioning life for the two women is Ana (Marija Skaricic), a young Bosnian with an outgoing disposition who nonetheless can’t fully conceal the inner scars of war.
Ana’s readiness to help at the cafeteria endears her to Ruza, but when Ana organizes a surprise birthday party for her, Ruza first takes it as an affront. However, after being forced to accept the temporary interruption to her routine, Ruza gradually gives herself up to the music’s draw in an exuberant overhead shot.
In less subtle hands, “Fraulein” could have wound up as either a feel-good tale or a weepy story about loss. Instead, Staka (whose short “Hotel Belgrade” screened at Sundance and Palm Springs film festivals) allows herself to be guided by the characters. Staka isn’t entirely free from first-feature balancing problems — as the weakest of the three women, Mila occasionally gets subsumed by the others. But, these are minor kinks in a remarkably affecting work that doesn’t go for easy sentiment.
Instead, Staka’s interested in subtleties and looks at the different coping mechanisms of immigrants, from Ruza’s overly efficient life to Ana’s carefree existence.
Neither Karanovic nor Skaricic speak German, so their lines, surprisingly fluid, were learned phonetically. Thesping is outstanding: Emir Kusturica regular Karanovic reduces herself to the bare minimum, allowing the occasional half-smile to creep in to briefly acknowledge the human being beneath the automaton.
Skaricic (“A Wonderful Night in Split”) brings just the right amount of devil-may-care openness with the wounded uncertainty of someone all too familiar with loss.
Staka’s trusting collaboration with d.p. Igor Martinovic results in a handsome, carefully constructed visual style.