A patrician family of Luebeck merchants droops into oblivion in “Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family,” a lackluster adaptation of Thomas Mann’s monumental novel. Big-name German cast is aces, but helmer Heinrich Breloer struggles to lift his big-budget sudser to the level of epic tragedy. Reduced to a tale of romantic and family strife set in a picturesque past, “Buddenbrooks” will not please purists or more refined noses but, like the work of painter Thomas Kinkade — to whose work Breloer’s visuals bear a striking resemblance — there certainly is a market for it, though mainly on the smallscreen.
Pic is an example of what the Germans are calling “amphibian films” — productions that are conceived and shot with both the cinema and a longer TV format in mind, the advantage being the access to coin from an alphabet soup of TV channels. Breloer, a Teuton TV vet, already explored the life of Mann in the miniseries “The Manns,” with Armin Mueller-Stahl as the Nobel Prize-winning author. Mueller-Stahl returns here, as do many crew members.
By completely ignoring the first generation of Buddenbrooks and giving only cursory attention to the fourth, Breloer reduces Mann’s epic of a mercantile dynasty to an extended story of parents and their offspring. Jean (Mueller-Stahl) is the patriarch of the family, based in the Baltic Sea port of Luebeck, Germany, in the mid-19th century. Business is thriving, and eldest son Thomas (Mark Waschke) and only daughter Tony (Jessica Schwarz) are both of marrying age. The main goal of their younger sibling, Christian (August Diehl), is to enjoy life to the fullest.
First half-hour is mainly concerned with Tony’s unwillingness to marry Hamburg merchant Gruenlich (Justus von Dohnanyi) and her subsequent unhappy marriage and divorce. A handsome student (Alexander Fehling) with whom she shares a passionate kiss is considered an unsuitable party.
Schwarz’s perf is mesmerizing and draws viewers in immediately, but pic’s treatment of Tony’s fate early on is emblematic of Breloer and co-screenwriter Horst Koenigstein’s misunderstanding of Mann’s saga of family riches and ruin: Tony’s tragedy is not that she knows love and loses it, but rather that she decides to do the right thing for her family’s sake but still ends up unhappy (a further marriage and divorce await).
In this adaptation, the Buddenbrooks are not tragically thwarted by fate, but simply unlucky in love and business, which often makes pic feel like a soap — albeit one in splendid period duds. Further story beats are all neatly timed to coincide with future commercial breaks, as at each 30-minute mark, a major event occurs (a funeral, a birth, a death). Focus is always on the emotions; the family’s economic downfall is treated summarily.
Final two showdowns between the quarreling brothers, both over a corpse, are well written and acted, though Breloer doesn’t succeed in suggesting that something more than mere human beings — a family, a name, an epoch — has died.
Lenser Gernot Roll can’t keep the camera still for two seconds, which should work fine on the tube but gives this widescreen pic a restless finish. Arty shadows and abundant light add to the Kinkade feel and make protags’ pupils look unnaturally small in closeups. Production design deals in chocolate-box views of 19th-century Germany.
Film’s saving grace is its excellent cast. Schwarz and Diehl are socko in the showy parts and Waschke, in a restrained role, is their equal. Mueller-Stahl, only seen in the first hour, is dignified, while Iris Berben and Fedja van Huet impress in their few scenes as the family’s matriarch and her rival, respectively.