Rainer Kaufmann, who directed some of the sharpest items (“Talk of the Town,” “The Pharmacist”) at the start of Germany’s movie renaissance in the mid-’90s, falls just short of the brass ring with “Runaway Horse.” The adaptation of veteran scribe Martin Walser’s best-known novel, about a bored couple whose marriage is tested by some surprise visitors one summer vacation, more than gets by on its starry cast but lacks the blackly comedic punch inherent in the material. Pic, which just finished a comfortable two-month run on home turf, is still a good bet for film weeks and Eurowebs.
Middle-aged couple Helmut Halm (Ulrich Noethen), a teacher from Munich, and his wife, Sabine (Katja Riemann), are whiling away yet another predictable vacation on the shores of Lake Constance, when Helmut’s eyes wander to a stunning young blonde on the beach. Helmut is then caught unawares when the man massaging the blonde’s toes introduces himself as Helmut’s old school buddy Klaus Buch (Ulrich Tukur). The blonde is Helene (lissome newcomer Petra Schmidt-Schaller), who likes to be known as “Hel.”
Hell in large doses is what Helmut gets as the hearty Klaus and the Lolita-like Helene insist on having lunch, during which Klaus mightily embarrasses the reserved scholar with lascivious tales of the latter’s youth. Sabine, however, is intrigued, and for the next couple of days there’s no shaking off the pair of interlopers.
As Helmut protests against the invasion, strains in his marriage to Sabine surface. Problem is, he’s visibly stirred by Helene’s come-ons, just as Sabine is flattered by Klaus’ brazen advances. When the two men go sailing one day, their frank talk — during which Klaus again urges Helmut to live life rather than just observe it — is suddenly interrupted by a storm, with dramatic consequences.
Casting of the four protags is pretty much perfect, with Tukur especially sinister as the immaculate, mustachioed Klaus who has a zest for life and a skin as thick as a used-car salesman. But like many films in the companions-from-hell genre, “Horse” falls down by never giving a convincing reason for the main characters not walking out in the early stages. Even when, much later, both Helmut and Sabine privately acknowledge they’re being “seduced,” they simply carry on as willing seductees.
Lack of any deep dramatic conflict weakens the main couple’s characters, despite pro playing by Noethen and Riemann, as well as the whole dramatic drive of the second half. Played as a slightly broader comedy, pic could have worked much better — and certainly the unrealistic conclusion, during which the Mephistophelian angle becomes explicit.
Technical package, including Annette Focks’ quizzical score and Klaus Eichhammer’s lensing of the beautiful Lake Constance locations, is thoroughly pro.