One of the reasons the proposed “Toni Erdmann” remake is being met with resistance in some quarters is its specificity: Maren Ade’s offbeat delight seems so wholly defined by those actors playing those characters in that exact situation. It’s a potential issue very much avoided by her countryman Oliver Kienle’s impressively slick thriller “Four Hands,” which operates within its highly exportable genre on such clean lines that it feels almost inevitably destined for a Hollywood remake. As usual, that will be a shame — aside from the language barrier necessitating dreaded subtitles, there is nothing to stop wider international audiences embracing this elegant and engrossing film as is.
In its opening third, before the suspense plot picks up its own inexorable tick-tock momentum, the film actually shows significant promise as an investigation of trauma, duality and a knottily co-dependent sororal relationship — so much so, that it’s almost disappointing when it switches to full-on genre mode. So while it should find an appreciative audience at festivals and in the domestic German market, it also suggests that writer-director Kienle himself may be ready after only two features (his debut, “Stronger Than Blood,” won a number of German awards, especially in newcomer categories) to abandon the generic scaffolding altogether and to strike off in a more personal, more challenging (and probably less commercial) direction, should he want to. Either that, or accept a fat wad of cash to make the leap to English-language filmmaking instead.
The film’s mood of somber contrasts is established right from its arresting beginning. An imposing 19th-century house stands isolated on a hill, backdropped against the brutalist lines of an industrial plant, belching smoke from chimney stacks. Inside the house, two little girls play a hesitant duet on a piano, with the innocent plinking of their tune uneasily sitting over a wash of clanking and grinding from the factory (throughout the film, Marcus Glunz’ clever sound design and Heiko Maile’s evocative but unobtrusive score work well in concert).
With shocking suddenness, glass shatters and their mother hurtles into the room, begging for her life from an unseen assailant. But as the girls take refuge underneath a sofa, they bear partial witness to her bloody, violent murder. At least, one of them does: Jessica hugs her little sister Sophie to her, covering her eyes and ears so she won’t see what is happening, and whispering promises to protect her.
Twenty years later, the two still live in the same house. Jessica (Friederike Becht) is a nervy paranoiac, Sophie (Frida-Lovisa Hamann) a promising pianist. Their lonely, asymmetric, co-dependent relationship seems on the verge of crumbling when news breaks that the two people responsible for their parents’ death are being released from prison. The dark-haired, tattooed Jessica panics, convinced they still pose a danger and when pretty, fair-haired Sophie cannot dissuade her, they argue, resulting in a tragic accident.
Sophie now has to contend with survivor’s guilt, as well as grief and, as one moving admission makes clear, also relief that her over-protective, unbalanced sister is gone. She starts to form a tentative connection with a preternaturally sympathetic nurse, Martin (Christoph Letkowski), and lands her dream job. But at increasingly frequent junctures, she undergoes what seems like a violent possession by her sister’s spirit (clearly signaled to us by the physically dissimilar actresses alternating in the role).
To say much more would be to spoil the twists and rug-pulls that happen in the film’s later stages. Suffice to say, Sophie begins to fear for her sanity, as in her blackout periods, “Jessica” takes over and is intent on visiting revenge on their parents’ murderers, in the name of protecting Sophie from beyond the grave. But while the supernaturally-tinged plot may be outlandish, the commitment and confidence of the actors, and of Kienle in delivering what could be shallow twists with a surprising amount of emotional effect and psychological insight, give the film its melancholic, meditative texture. And with DP Yoshi Heimrath’s sinuous photography a tour de force of control (a long, serpentine tracking shot and an eerily vertiginous drone shot from over the big, gloomy house are particular standouts) it feels like a smart, involving, restrained drama delivered in polished, confident thriller packaging.
Perhaps more readily reminiscent of the recent tradition of Spanish-language films like “Julia’s Eyes” and “The Secret in Their Eyes” than of any discernibly German trend, from an international standpoint, “Four Hands” does fall between two categories: It’s too farfetched and high-concept to qualify as typical arthouse fare, yet created with enough care and sensitivity to mean it cannot be written off as pulp either. And its complex plotting does eventually countermand the more ambiguous and rewarding “Persona”-like drama lurking within. But non-subtitle-averse genre aficionados have a brisk and resonant little treat in store, and at the very least should take the chance to be tricked and twisted about by this story before it’s remade with Jennifer Lawrence and Tatiana Maslany or whoever, and before Kienle’s calling card is picked up by some keen-eyed studio exec across the Atlantic.