Of all the ways to begin a movie, few are more cruel than presenting a character such as Lara Jenkins and, before the audience has even gotten the chance to know her, showing her wearily open the window to her depressing German flat, position a chair and prepare to jump. Then the doorbell rings. It is Lara’s 60th birthday, and judging from the way it starts, she does not see it as a special occasion. Director Jan-Ole Gerster makes quite the gamble opening “Lara” in this manner, but as the film unfolds, he demonstrates that his intention was never to shock, but to identify with this conflicted character, proceeding to create a portrait of remarkable depth over the span of the day that follows.
A filmmaker once told me that, in his opinion, all movies are mysteries. Audiences go in knowing little or nothing, and they participate as the storyteller slowly reveals the clues to the world and its characters. In the case of “Lara,” there are two central questions: Why would Lara Jenkins want to commit suicide? And will she go through with it?
Seven years after unveiling his earnest, honest and wonderfully relatable black-and-white debut, “Oh Boy,” at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Gerster delivers his long-awaited sophomore film. This far-different project also features actor Tom Schilling, who embodied the open face of an uncertain generation in “Oh Boy,” though his role is much smaller here. Instead, Gerster focuses on their harder-to-read elders, casting actress Corinna Harfouch (“Downfall”) as Schilling’s mother, Lara, a severe and incredibly demanding civil servant who has dedicated more or less her entire existence to molding her son into a professional concert pianist.
In that pursuit, Lara has been successful — although she would be the last to admit it. Viktor Jenkins is nothing short of a virtuoso, and tonight, on Lara’s birthday, he plans to debut an original composition. Lara buys up every remaining ticket in the auditorium and gives them out to her friends. Well, “friends” isn’t the right word, for she has none. But Gerster allows us to discover that gradually, as Lara goes about awkwardly connecting with various key figures in her life, attempting with each exchange to control the dynamic and, more often than not, painfully failing in the process.
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There is the neighbor, a kindly but unsophisticated cab driver (André Jung), who recalls hearing “the sound of tinkling” from young Viktor through the walls years before. There are Lara’s former co-workers, who seem to fear her still, addressing her formally rather than by her first name (the film’s more familiar title suggests that Gerster is offering us a chance to know her better even than her peers do). There is her ex-husband (Rainer Bock) and also her mother (Gudrun Ritter), both of whom reprimand Lara for being too hard on her son. And there is the old piano teacher (Volkmar Kleinert), who carries the key to the entire psychological puzzle.
Lara offers each of these people tickets to the performance — a kind of reverse birthday present and a sign that she is proud of her son’s artistic accomplishments, although she never comes right out and says it. When Viktor’s girlfriend Johanna (a violinist played by Mala Emde) tracks her down to ask a few words of advice, Lara says things no mother should about her son, and when Johanna hurries off, understandably upset, Lara does something shockingly cruel.
She is, by almost any measure, a horrible person. Therein lies the third and most fascinating mystery of “Lara”: Why would this woman be deserving of her own movie?
The farther Gerster goes with Lara Jenkins, the more we come to understand the depth and source of her damage. She is not unlike the sadomasochistic character Isabelle Huppert played in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” who destroyed a young musician’s prospects by placing shards of glass in her victim’s coat pockets. But the damage Lara inflicts here is entirely psychological, and Gerster’s approach is nowhere near as icy. There is, in fact, a warmth beneath the surface, emanating both from the filmmaker’s faith in the character and from the actress herself, who suggests a German version of Mary Kay Place.
Lara, we learn, could have been a piano prodigy, too, but she was never good enough. Or so she came to believe. Petrified of embarrassing her parents in public, she gave up before she had the chance, transferring all of her energy into grooming Viktor instead — although her pattern, and the power she holds over the poor boy, is to let him excel until a point and then to “pull the leash.” So what does Viktor’s concert hold in store for Lara? Will he humiliate her, or perhaps himself? (Would that be so bad?)
One of the many important life lessons Gerster includes in “Lara” is the notion that in order to accomplish anything of consequence, individuals must ignore the criticism and risk humiliation. (Even as a film critic — someone whose métier appears to be that of picking apart the artistic achievements of others — I embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly.) Criticism is not — and ought not to be — a deterrent to artistic risk. It should function as an aid to understanding, serving to interpret and possibly to raise the bar, and artists would do well not to place too great a weight on what others think of their work. But how can they not when that feedback comes from a parent?
If anyone in “Lara” might be expected to stand at an open window, thinking about throwing himself through it in desperation, it would be Viktor — although that would be a different, more melodramatic kind of movie entirely. In any case, it’s unfair of Gerster to use the prospect of suicide as a dramatic device, and yet, he earns it multiple times over through the sensitivity that emerges over the course of the picture. There are powerful, profound moments in store for audiences here, mysteries to be resolved, and those — of the damage passed down generations and of human behavior in particular — for which we can never pretend to have a solution.