Greek-German relations get a treatment at once allegorical and intimate in “One Breath,” a steadily absorbing drama that follows two women in a story of class tension and mutual exploitation that doubles as a commentary on the eurozone. With critical nurturing, this high-minded, topical and cumulatively gripping character study could serve as an arthouse breakout for German director Christian Zubert (“Lammbock,” “Hind und weg”), who here demonstrates a command of his material that belies his lack of name recognition Stateside.
Pic opens with Athens-based lovers Elena (Chara Mata Giannatou) and Costas (Apostolis Totsikas) being interrupted by the sounds of Costas’s brother’s porn next door. They’re in Costas’s childhood home, where they live in an economically arrested limbo. He is an architect who can only find part-time work, including a stint as a city tour guide. Elena, dissatisfied with the status quo, resolves to try living in Germany.
In the film’s first section, titled “Elena’s Journey,” she travels to Frankfurt, where a doctor, discovering that Elena is pregnant, is unwilling to sign off on her employment at a bar. Elena bluffs her way into work as a nanny for Lotte (played by twins Lucie and Marie Horlacher), despite having little experience with children. Her frazzled child-care technique owes a bit to Jeremie Renier’s indifference to his baby in the early scenes of the Dardennes’ “L’Enfant.” Elena’s need for doctors’ visits only adds to the strain.
Still, her difficulties with Lotte are overshadowed by her relationship with the toddler’s bourgeois, high-handed parents. In particular, she receives withering criticism from Tessa (Jordis Triebel), who rages when she comes home to an untidy apartment. (We later learn that, having just returned from maternity leave, Tessa has been facing workplace difficulties of her own.) With regard to Elena, Tessa’s husband, Jan (Benjamin Sadler), plays good cop to his wife’s bad cop, treating Tessa herself with a condescension that is eroding their relationship. The women seem to be on a collision course, though in a moment of detente, Tessa agrees to let Elena register their home as an official address so that she can obtain medical services.
It’s at around this point that, with a slight rewind, “One Breath” takes a turn that shouldn’t be spoiled. But the second part, “Tessa’s Journey,” shifts focus to Elena’s employer, who travels to Athens on a desperate search. She is aided by a sympathetic translator (Akilas Karazisis, excellent) who has a tendency to soft-pedal bad news. The women’s intertwined perspectives add up to an inescapable commentary on the power dynamics between Germany and Greece: Rash decisions from both sides have a tendency to rebound disproportionately on one party.
Yet despite its political bluntness, “One Breath” reveals its full intentions patiently and methodically. It’s easy to watch the film and be caught off guard by its surprises and its structure, even if the latter proves somewhat programmatic.
The presentation is deceptively unfussy; Zubert, cinematographer Ngo The Chau and editor Mona Brauer juggle and differentiate the dual protags’ perspectives without succumbing to the heavy-handed signposting of a “Crash” or a “Babel.” The biggest drawback is the wisp of a title, which, like the innocuous early scenes, barely offers a hint of the film’s impact.