German humor is a distinctly conflicted concept in “Hedi Schneider is Stuck,” an improbably wry, compassionate character comedy about that least chucklesome of topics: clinical depression. Setting out in a register of sprightly farce, this study of a cheery working mother drawn into a despairing psychological vortex after a sudden panic attack turns out to be a far riskier exercise in tone than its outward trappings suggest. As the protagonist’s mood drops, so too does the tenor of writer-helmer Sonja Heiss’s perceptive, even-handed script, though the results are never maudlin or po-faced. The presence of “Everyone Else” director Maren Ade on the producers’ bench will boost distributor interest, though the pic’s resistance to simple classification — it’s both a charmer and a challenge — might place “Hedi Schneider” in a commercial tight spot.
If the title “Hedi Schneider is Stuck” implies a certain chick-lit breeziness, the pic’s opening scenes are complicit in this misdirection: When our eponymous, thirtysomething heroine (Laura Tonke) finds herself stranded in a faulty office elevator, “Bridget Jones”-style comedy of embarrassment would appear to be the order of the day. Bright and grounded, though kooky enough to engage the elevator service operator in intimate conversation, Hedi works at a travel agency where her sense of whimsy is broadly tolerated if not quite appreciated. More on her wavelength, happily, are her loving husband Uli (Hans Low) and young son Finn (Leander Nitsche), who share her interest in far-flung destinations; Uli, a sign language interpreter, is eyeing a job that will uproot the family to Gambia.
However, even in this chirpy first act — lent a self-consciously quirky note by Lambert’s plinky, percussive score — possibilities of darkness bleed into Hedi’s primary-colored world. A co-worker abruptly exits the scene following a reported suicide attempt; at home, Finn wrestles with his nascent understanding of mortality. But it’s in an initially frisky love scene between Hedi and Uli that Heiss executes a jolting tonal jackknife: In the middle of a role-playing game, she is seized by a drastic panic attack, enacted by Tonke with profoundly unnerving conviction. Doctors offer little explanation, but ample, inadequately regulated medication; it’s not long before the frayed, frightened Hedi grows dependent on emergency tranquilizers.
Thus begins the period of psychological stasis to which the title (beyond the bluntly literal symbolic implications of the elevator gag) truly refers: As the pills pull her deeper into the spiraling funk they were intended to remedy, Hedi finds herself effectively stuck in her own head, unable to communicate effectively even with those closest to her. Heiss deftly conveys this tunnel vision, but doesn’t limit the film to first-person perspective: No less affectingly drawn than Hedi’s internal plight is its impact on her husband and their alienated, uncomprehending son. A less emotionally intelligent film might take Uli to task for his growing exasperation in response to her condition; it certainly wouldn’t locate as many pockets of gentle situational humor within her painful struggle as this one does, not least in an achingly funny, poignant scene where a doped-up Hedi enters an exotic pet store to buy back Finn’s affections.
While it could hardly be more sensitive to her personal setbacks, the film avoids presenting Hedi as anything so simple as a victim: Thanks in no small degree to Tonke’s superb performance, the question of the character’s capacity for self-healing is kept in play throughout. Tonke alternates gestures of involuntary absurdity with ones of piercing self-identification; she’s a game, goofy physical comedienne to boot. Low similarly excels in a role that invites no canned emotional responses; the supporting ensemble underplays appropriately.
Tech contributions are modest but carefully conceived. The pic’s soft, warmly lit lensing by Nikolai von Graevenitz (who shot Heiss’s 2007 debut “Hotel Very Welcome,” as well as features for Maren Ade and Miranda July) works with production designer Tim Pannen and costume designer Nicole von Graevenitz to build a subtext-laden color palette that both reflects Hedi’s mood and, occasionally, cruelly opposes it: Rarely has lemon yellow seemed such a taunting shade on camera.