An inexperienced intern at a Thuringia hospital isn’t equipped to handle love in “Dreileben: Beats Being Dead,” from German auteur Christian Petzold (“Yella,” “Jerichow”). Tube-funded pic is part of the “Dreileben” trilogy, with the three films sharing the eponymous small town and the case of an escaped criminal as a backdrop, though each is made by a different filmmaker. Troubled leads and coldly menacing atmosphere are vintage Petzold, but the young protags and slight story lack the hypnotic quality of the helmer’s best work. Skedded for a September preem on the Teuton tube, pic could travel to further fests.
The other two films, “Don’t Follow Me Around” and “One Minute of Darkness,” were helmed by Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhaeusler, respectively. Commissioned by German TV channels Bayerischen Rundfunk, ARD Degeto and WDR, the trilogy came about after a series of emails among the three filmmakers, in which they discussed German cinema and the so-called Berlin School and the extent to which they relate to it, if at all. Their correspondence was published in local cinema magazine Revolver in 2007, which led to the idea of a joint project.
Nondescript blond Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) interns at Dreileben’s country hospital. Something of a slacker, he owes his internship, which substitutes as his civilian service, to his mother’s friendship with one of the physicians there, Dr. Dreier (Rainer Bock).
Bulk of the film concentrates on the nascent amorous relationship between Johannes and a foreign brunette, chambermaid Ana (Luna Zimic Mijovic), who is taken in by Johannes after being physically abused by her biker b.f. Both youngsters seem unsure how to tackle something so basic as a normal relationship, and they spend much of the film apologizing to each other for tiny faux pas.
This might be true to life, but it doesn’t make for involving drama. Reportedly inspired by the myth of Ondine, pic uses water as a motif and offers references to the river Styx and death (another recurring obsession of the director). But despite this, the story never becomes more than the sum of its parts. In his other films, Petzold often tied his protags’ problems in the love department to their past and jobs, but since the protags are young and aimless, and their employment is more or less forced on them, there are no such clear parallels for the taking here.
Some suspense is provided by the trilogy’s common thread: the dangerous escapee (Stefan Kurt) who roams the woods around Dreileben, though even this is a minor element, with the skittish fugitive’s p.o.v. shots feeling completely out of synch with the clean, sharp look (a Petzold trademark) that dominates the rest of the film.
The late-in-the-game prominence of Dr. Dreier’s pretty blonde daughter, Sarah (Vijessna Ferkic), adds some spice and narrative complications, though her backstory should have been properly introduced much earlier in order for Sarah and Ana to function as contrasting opposites.
Thesps are all strong, with child actor Matschenz (“The Wave”) here showing maturity as a thesp in the role of an immature youngster. He’s almost matched by Bosnian thesp Mijovic (“Grbavica”), who has real presence despite her somewhat monotonous German line delivery. In the small supporting cast, Bock stands out as the genial doctor.
Though made with a small crew — the end credits take less than half a minute to unspool — pic feels like a well-appointed smallscreen drama. The excellent sound design and unsettling score infuse the proceedings with a constant sense of unease.