The 2015 Berlin Film Festival wasn’t an auspicious one for the storied veterans of the 1970s New German Cinema (notably Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog), and that downward trend continued apace with Margarethe Von Trotta’s “The Misplaced World.” A middle-aged soap opera that strains credibility so often as to make Nicholas Sparks seem a master of neorealism, Von Trotta’s sudsy tale of long-lost loves and unearthed family secrets swirls around the director’s trademark themes of sisterhood and female solidarity, but never comes to life on a dramatic or psychological level. It’s not the world that’s been misplaced here, but rather a once-great director’s judgment.
Von Trotta was inspired to make “The Misplaced World” by her own late-in-life discovery of an adult half-sister, though the movie she’s ended up with feels more contrived than an entire month’s worth of “Days of Our Lives” and festooned with the kind of talky, solipsistic soul searching one associates with the lesser films of the American independent Henry Jaglom. We begin in Germany, where Sophie (Katja Riemann) gigs around as a lounge singer and makes ends meet by working as a secular marriage officiator. It is, we’re told, a tough life, though judging from the evidence onscreen Sophie isn’t too far removed from the comfortable bourgeois life of her father, Paul (Matthias Habich).
When we meet her, Sophie is still coping with the recent death of her mother, Evelyn, whose ghost also returns nightly to haunt Paul, or so he claims. Then Paul catches a glimpse of Evelyn elsewhere — in an Internet photograph of Caterina Fabiani (Barbara Sukowa), a star diva with the Metropolitan Opera who’s such a dead ringer for his dead wife that he begs Sophie to travel to New York and investigate. And because Sophie has, ever so conveniently, just been fired from her latest singing job and broken up with her no-account boyfriend, she agrees to do Dad’s bidding.
Thus “The Misplaced World” decamps to Manhattan — or at least the very small sliver of the Upper West Side to which Von Trotta’s characters seem permanently consigned (Woody Allen is a veritable Robert Moses by comparison). Evidencing surprisingly lax security at the Met, Sophie is able to barge right into Caterina’s dressing room after a performance of Bellini’s “Norma,” but she can’t quite cut to the chase before catching the eye of Caterina’s agent, Philip (Robert Seeliger) — who, like nearly every other man in the film, lusts after the fortysomething Sophie as if she were Marilyn Monroe in her “Seven Year Itch” prime. Soon, Philip is happily abetting Sophie in her stalking of his client, who already has plenty of drama in her own personal life, including a senile mother and an estranged alcoholic husband.
Of course, Sophie eventually thaws Caterina’s icy facade, and the two women team up to solve the mystery of their collective past — a Sparks-ian puzzle that involves lots of chance encounters and at least three different characters pulling yellowed photographs or letters out of some old wooden box. (Does everyone have one of these tucked away in a bureau?) All the while, Philip works his (questionable) charms on Sophie, wooing her with such tone-deaf English dialogue as “I told you she’s untouchable, but thank god you’re not.” (A similarly stilted quality plagued the English-language scenes in Von Trotta’s previous “Hannah Arendt,” by most other measures a much better movie.) That the Canadian Seeliger decided — or was directed by Von Trotta — to deliver all of his lines in a Joe Pesci-ish New Joisey goomba accent hardly helps matters.
It won’t take the average viewer nearly as long to figure out what’s really going on here as it does Von Trotta’s characters, who have to make a few more transatlantic journeys and fend off a flock of red herrings (including Rudiger Vogler as an opera choreographer who might have been one of Evelyn’s lovers) before finally getting to the bottom of things. Riemann (“Rosenstrasse”) and Sukowa, both of whom have collaborated with Von Trotta on multiple previous occasions, make the most of the subpar material, and Riemann uses her smoky, torchy voice to good effect in a couple of musical scenes. If only this dreary downer of a movie were itself something worth singing about.