Saturday, November 22, 2008
This review was also published at the Feminist Review.
Since the advent of sound entered the motion picture business in the 1920s, audiences have continually been fascinated with the bebop rhythm of music and its creators. Al Jolson, who uttered cinema’s initial words (“…you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”) was the first to be tackled by Hollywood’s dream machine. Next came the likes of Gershwin, Miller, and Porter. Busby Berkeley made violins out of the figures of women who danced to jazz numbers. Dorothy Arzner, one of Hollywood’s only feminist filmmakers, directed Dance, Girl, Dance. Soon enough, MGM’s innovative Freed unit followed suit and produced spectacular musicals with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Music truly brought magic to the movies. Well, at least until the 1970s when the studio system collapsed and Hollywood took every ounce of musical cinema down with it. Today, musicals have dwindled down to the most inane form of entertainment: the bio-pic. Movies like Ray, Walk the Line, DreamGirls, and Moulin Rouge have all but ruined the movie musical with their tired narrative formulas and unimaginative aesthetics.
There are many grave misfortunes that go hand in hand with the reality of an over-commercialized film industry. One of the primary aspects is that there really are a few films released each year that are worth our attention. But we never get to see them on any sort of a mass scale because we’re too busy being bombarded with the latest blockbuster. However, I recently had the privilege to view one of those elite flicks, a German film called Four Minutes (Vier Minuten) that, thankfully, proves me wrong with its insane amount of passion, musical poise, and sincere subject matter.
Jenny, played immaculately by Hannah Herzsprung, is a convicted murderess serving out her sentence at an all-female prison in rural Germany. She was once a grand pianist who gave up her gift when her father began sexually abusing her as a teenager. Jenny is now a headstrong and irritable kook who has a devout need for self-expression in art, but is not able to access that kind of release until Mrs. Krueger (Monica Bleibtreau), an eighty-year old with a dark past, begins giving her piano lessons at the prison. Music becomes a source of freedom for both characters. It’s almost as if they’re only truly human while making beautiful music together.
There is a strange frenetic quality running through the veins of Four Minutes that will leave you feeling wonderfully disjointed by the film’s end. It doesn’t pull any typical punches. Like, when the main characters talk about their troubled past, neither the film or the other character stops to pay attention. Instead, these minor personal trifles are viewed as a small, necessary annoyance; something to get over with quickly so they can move onto what’s really important: the music; neither Nazism or sexual abuse can stand in its way. Four Minutes is a worthwhile modern musical because it embraces the power of the medium without losing itself entirely inside its own world. It’s a consciously musical film without being self-conscious.
Though discussing acting isn’t usually my forte when reviewing a film, I must make special note of Hannah Herzsprung’s performance as Jenny. She is remarkable because she makes a mostly monstrous person both realistic and heartbreaking. Passion and zest ooze out of her body language and speech. There are a few memorable images in the film - the plucking of a cigarette out of a dead person’s pocket, playing the piano with handcuffs on, and a dramatic musical finale in front of a huge audience - that stand out amongst the rest because of the sheer power and charisma of Herzsprung and her character. She has won several acting awards for this film, and if you see it, you’ll definitely understand why. I can’t wait to see more of her work.
Four Minutes is a rarity in contemporary cinema because it takes the passion and talent of its characters seriously. Instead of rigorously enforcing the narrative structure upon us with inane details and devices, the film freely takes flight in pure moments of cinema that tell us more about the characters and their thoughts than an expository scene that hits all of the right, but boring notes. If you have Four Minutes to spare, I sincerely recommend you track this film down as it is the best of the best of the now New German Cinema.