Perhaps it’s inevitable that the reach of Florian Hoffmeister’s feature debut “The Have-Nots” somewhat exceeds its grasp. This is a film that attempts little less than to make a grand statement on the disaffection of an entire young, upwardly mobile, international generation in the wake of the seismic existential shock that was 9/11, even working in allusions to World War II. It’s actually more remarkable that Hoffmeister comes fairly close at times to fulfilling such gargantuan ambitions, in the form of a modest, black-and-white relationship drama. Based on Katharina Hacker’s award-winning novel of the same title (“Die Habenichtse”), and distinguished by two quietly credible performances in challenging central roles, “The Have-Nots” deserves praise for revealing an often transparent truth: that the ties that bind us to each other are irrevocably influenced by events over which we have no control. In short, this world can drive you mad, without you even noticing.
Jacob (Sebastian Zimmler) meets his longtime best friend Hans (Ole Jagerpusch) for a drink following Jacob’s promotion at his Berlin law firm and Hans’ acceptance of a big job in restitution law in London. Both men travel to New York on business; Hans casually encourages Jacob to attend a Berlin gallery opening some days hence which artist Isabelle (Julia Jentsch) an ex for whom Jacob still carries a torch, is expected to attend. Next thing we know, Jacob has curtailed his American trip, leaving Hans behind, to make it to the opening, where he duly meets Isabelle and sparks fly. The scene is set for a bittersweet love story about fate and second chances, until we discover the date: the 11th of September, 2001.
The 9/11 attacks and their effect on the American psyche have been much discussed and analysed, either directly or obliquely, in a multitude of films and TV shows since. But the international slant here feels like territory less well-traveled, as the infamous imagery of burning towers, falling figures and ash-covered passersby unfolds on television screens in Berlin apartments and in newspapers read in European sidewalk cafes. For Jacob and Isabelle, the shock of the attack is real but remote, until the revelation that Hans is among the dead.
In a slipstream of grief and guilt, with an oddly understandable urge to atone by living out Hans’ life rather than his own, Jacob decides to take Hans’ London job, and proposes to Isabelle. At an impasse in her own creative life and shaken on a less personal but no less profound level by the Iraq War era of uncertainty, she accepts. They move to London, to a flat with a dodgy door and downstairs neighbors who are volubly abusive toward their little girl. Their increasing alienation from each other leads Isabelle into an unlikely relationship with volatile junkie and small-time dealer Jim (Guy Burnet), while Jacob works long days on a tricky case and begins to hallucinate Hans in the faces of strangers.
Hans’ death is clearly the crux of the story, though Hoffmeister’s film would arguably have been stronger without that further twist of the knife. Along with his lead actors, he makes a fine job of evoking the sense of dissociation, the generalized loss of stability felt by those who were on the verge of the most defining period of their lives when 9/11 happened. We see clever, subtle connections between the micro — the irrational behavioral impulses that Jacob and Isabelle display — and the macro socio-political situation. This valuable point might have been better made had Jacob had no direct connection to the 9/11 attacks — had the couple’s grief been, as it was for so many millions, more helplessly theoretical than pointedly personal. When Jacob, during a moment of breakdown, confesses to feeling like his and Isabelle’s love was what had killed Hans — that if he hadn’t left New York in hopes of seeing her Hans would still be alive — it is poignant, but in being so particular it undercuts the potential for more universal insights.
Similarly, a subplot about a wartime restitution case feels like an unnecessary extra that does little to enrich the film’s real concern, which is how the times in which we live can affect us on a more intimate level than we like to believe. These processes are invisible to Jacob and Isabelle because they live so deep inside them, but Hoffmeister’s talent is to render them visible to us, the omniscient viewers. Omniscient but not quite godlike, that is — because while we understand the wider patterns that Jacob and Isabelle cannot ever see in their fullness, we are as powerless as they are to change them. As the slightly despairing “happy” ending to this very promising and sensitive debut suggests, some breakages can’t be fixed, only accepted. After that, you can only hope to hell that someone out there will save you from being broken alone.