At some time or another, idly or with intent, most of us have surely wondered about disappearing. What if I rode this bus until the end of the line and then just kept walking? What if I grabbed my passport and drove to the airport? What if I went out for cigarettes and never came home? The seductive romance that clings to the idea is in part down to the multiplicity of these what-ifs, but German director Jan Speckenbach’s intriguing, sincere, if somewhat overreaching sophomore feature “Freedom” starts with the dice already rolled. Nora (Johanna Wokalek) wanders past Breugel’s “Tower of Babel” painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, while in Berlin, unaware of her whereabouts, her lawyer husband Philip (a sympathetic Hans-Jochen Wagner), teenage daughter Lena (Rubina Labusch) and younger son Jonas (Georg Arms) go about their lives carefully skirting the Nora-shaped hole in the family.
Speckenbach’s most inspired decision here is to split his film more or less equally between Nora and Philip, as she becomes an increasingly vague abstraction of her former self, through changing haircuts, different cities and various assumed identities, while he seems to become more sharply defined in response to the challenges of this new, unsought status quo. The film’s unusual chronology, which starts off with the deed already done, only to spin back for a final act that takes place in Berlin the night of Nora’s sudden departure, is also a clever choice — one made braver still by the the refusal to offer up any concrete, last-straw-style argument or conflict.
Not quite so well thought-out, however, is the rather underdeveloped undercurrent of racial unease, most notable in the person of the comatose victim of a hate crime whose attacker Philip is reluctantly defending, and a black tennis pro with whom the family has a strained conversation during an impromptu dinner. The film is about the chameleonic nature of identity, and how much of it is socially proscribed, but the issues around racial identity and white liberal guilt are far too complex to be used as mere background texture.
But “Freedom” is better at complicating accepted gender norms and for the most part, its portrait of the great taboo that is maternal abandonment is refreshingly non-judgmental, helped by Wokalek’s invested yet aloof turn as Nora. It’s a performance, well-captured in Tilo Hauke’s crisp daytime and velvety nighttime photography, that allows Nora’s motivations to remain mysterious — possibly even to herself — yet also oddly believable. We can understand her, even if we can’t explain her.
Nora picks up a casual lover, then hitchhikes onward to Bratislava, befriends sex worker Etela (Andrea Szabová) and her husband Tamas (Ondrej Koval’) and gets a job as a maid in a luxury hotel. And while it’s a hoary cliché that no matter where you run away to, you’ll always end up running into yourself, at its best moments, “Freedom” suggests that self-reinvention is entirely possible. You just have to know there will be consequences.
But then, “freedom” is a grandiose word and attaching it to this small, strange story as its title, even in irony, suggests that Speckenbach has ambitions for his film that are never quite fulfilled. It’s an impression compounded by unnecessary flourishes, from the overliteral projections of Nora’s face that occasionally flood the walls of the family’s Berlin apartment, to the Ibsen reference of her name (the heroine of “A Doll’s House” is also Nora, and also leaves her family), to the rather pretentious opening text, which references Lethe, the mythic river of forgetfulness.
Most questionably, there’s the frankly baffling end coda in which Nora, shocked into the last of her transformations by a domestic event at Etela’s that reminds her forcefully of her family, appears in a kind of fantasy landscape, in which Breugel’s tower again rears up in the distance. The biblical allusion here is confounding, as the story of Babel is one of humanity’s pride being punished by God: Does Speckenbach mean to imply, after all this careful characterization, that Nora deserves to be so harshly judged? It’s an unfortunate conclusion when one of the film’s strengths to that point has been that it dares not just to show a woman more or less successfully leaving her family (who will be traumatized, but ultimately fine without her), but that quietly respects, if not condones, her decision to do so.