You can’t please everyone. And for dedicated movie fans, the five Oscar –nominated performances in any of the acting categories are hardly ever the right five. In each field, there are usually two or three you’d switch out for ones you like better. 2003’s the year set for spotlighting in this month’s Supporting Actress Smackdown at the filmexperience.net. And for me, the field of five the Smackdowners will be mulling over is highlighted by Shoreh Aghdashloo’s luminously heart-wrenching work in “House of Sand and Fog”. But one actress that I think should’ve been among the nominees that year -but wasn’t - is the wonderful Katrin Sass, whose performance in Wolfgang Becker’s “Good Bye Lenin” really stands at the heart of that film’s emotional impact and enduring appeal.
Here’s the premise we’re presented. Sass plays Christiane Kerner , a wife (and mother of a small boy and girl) in late 70’s East Berlin. Out of the blue, her husband defects to the West to take up with another woman. Understandably traumatized, Frau Kerner has a breakdown – and is hospitalized. We see all this mainly through the eyes of her little son, Alex. The children, farmed out to friends for the duration, are ecstatic when their mother returns a month later; she’s her old self again. Mostly. But there’s a new facet to Christiane. She throws herself into patriotism , embarking on a program of good citizenship and practical social activism, helping those around her navigate the system’s bureaucratic thickets. This is never presented cartoonishly, though. Christiane is a woman whose motivations might be muddled, but her ardor and integrity are genuine. She does good things and inspires the love and respect of those around her. A sterling friend and neighbor, she’s also a terrific, mother –watchful, warm and funny. “She orbited” says Alex in voice-over, “like a satellite around her small planet”. And as the years pass, she and her children form an ever tighter, more affectionate unit. Then in 1989, Hanna has a heart attack. It sends her into an 8 month coma. And what an 8 months it turns out to be! The Berlin Wall falls, Communism – and the DDR - basically evaporate, the two Germany’s are reunited and capitalism flows into East Berlin on a tidal wave of cable dishes and Burger Kings. When Christiane emerges from her coma, doctors tell Alex (now played with career-making charisma by Daniel Bruhl) that any sudden excitement, any hint of radical change, may prove fatal to her. That’s when he formulates his endearingly off-the-wall plan to keep his mother thinking that nothing’s changed. As an invalid, she’s confined to her bedroom, with all her familiar things around her. Alex has a friend who’s something of a VCR era techie -and together they load her TV with mountains of old Soviet approved programming. To foster the illusion of an ongoing DDR, the pair get even more inventive, creating a series of false – but quite ingenious - news broadcasts . Neighbors are gradually enlisted in the ever more elaborate (and precarious) scheme. Which, of course, soon takes on a life of its own. “My mother’s bedroom,” says Alex, “resounded with the melody of yesterday”. These episodes are richly humorous, never descending to simple farce. That the whole film plays out both engagingly (and with real poignancy) is down to a good script, excellent direction and the rich, heartfelt performances of Daniel Bruhl and Katrin Sass. Bruhl’s Alex provides our POV but his lovely work wouldn’t be half as effective if he didn’t have an actress as accomplished and special as Kass to play his mother. We understand her children’s tremendous love and respect for her. And their determination not to lose her. Sass is the kind of artist who never has to push for effects. She’s all about subtlety. It’s in the eyes. It’s in her movements. It’s in the way she listens and reacts to the characters around her. An expressive face, a great talent, marvelous instincts – and with years spent honing her craft, she’s able to employ those assets to profound effect. As she recovers, memories return in bits and pieces. We share her frustration over a lost bankbook. Where did she put it? And she makes us feel the pain when she re-remembers that her husband’s gone. Then, finally, there’s her wonderfully conveyed bafflement when clues start to seep in that things are not what they seem. This is an artist who really does communicate.
The film’s about the internal negotiations we all engage in, and how the unilateral decisions we make, inevitably affect the lives of those closest to us, often in ways we couldn’t have predicted - and they wouldn’t have wanted. It’s about lies. When are they justified? When are they not? And the fact that even the best-intentioned ones come with downsides - with complications and consequences. Ultimately Frau Kerner reveals a secret of her own – and a lie at least as big as the elaborate one her son spins around her. Adding more layers to a performance that’s already mesmerisingly detailed.
Sass herself was an East German – and by the time the Berlin Wall fell, she’d already established herself as one of the DDR’s leading stage and television actresses. So the historical events pictured in “Good Bye Lenin” were very much a part of her own experience and psyche. She has a marvelous speaking voice. Its low notes (and her good looks) would have qualified her to play Dietrich/Leander type sirens at some point. Don’t know whether she ever did. But the expressive face and profound talent certainly make her a natural for communicating complex shades of humanity. And – with middle age – that expressivity has only grown richer and deeper. In any cast, she’s one of those people who seems to have been born to act. And you can only revel in the pleasure and privilege of watching her do it.
This is the picture that put Daniel Bruhl on the map internationally - and it’s easy to see why. I’ve followed his post “Lenin” career with pleasure. Even with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith operating at full throttle, he was pretty darn captivating in “Ladies in Lavender.” He also played the man a bloodthirsty Julie Delpy pines for in “The Countess” (a film Delpy also directed – with decided panache). And even with fireworks going off in every direction, Bruhl managed to carve out some pretty fascinating space for himself in “Inglourious Basterds” as Melanie Laurent’s won’t-take-no-for-an-answer Nazi suitor. All in all, the man seems set for a Colin Firth-style career – in both quality and longevity. He’s currently winning acclaim as Niki Lauda in “Rush”. But I’m dragging my heels about seeing this one. I’m just not a car person. I’d be hard-pressed to tell you the make of vehicle owned by anyone I know. Color’s about the most I can manage when it comes to auto identification. And – even there - I’m not that reliable. I haven’t driven since the 60’s – and was no great shakes then. In those days, service station guys were always there to gas up your car. I quake at the thought of somehow being called upon to cope with a self-serve gas pump . Even as an occasional passenger, I struggle in and out of seat belts. Cars just aren’t my thing. Which probably explains my lifelong aversion to race car movies. “Bobby Deerfield” and “Grand Prix” are the two cinematic flat tires that instantly come to mind for me. Tedious soap operas with regular mind-numbing interruptions to watch cars go round and round and round race tracks. My eyes glaze over even thinking about it. I realize that for fans, these sequences are as dazzling as Busby Berkeley production numbers. But for me they remain punishing exercises in boredom, protracted stations of the cross. Which is why I’ve been in no rush to see “Rush”. But I suspect at some point my weakness for Herr Bruhl will get the better of me and I’ll rent the damn thing – screeching tires and all – just to spend a little more time with him.
Katrin Sass’s post “Lenin” work has been harder to catch in North America. She’s done a lot of German television – and some movies that haven’t really been exported. But this year, Baran bo Odar’s psychological thriller “The Silence” has gotten a North American release (theatrical and DVD) and given us a chance to enjoy her again. Track it down. It’s a marvelous film - hauntingly photographed, scored and edited – with some really stand-out performances. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen is shockingly effective as a child murderer. Katrin Sass plays the mother of that child, carrying the wound with her through the decades that follow. Suffice to say she imbues the role with all the textured emotional complexity you’d hope for/expect from a great actress. Which she most definitely is.