"Four Minutes": Women in Cages with Prizes By Leif Joley

in 11st Sofia International Film Festival

by Leif Joley

With the women-in-prison flick Four Minutes (Vier Minuten), complemented with some lesbianism and Nazism, Chris Kraus seems to cover some of the cornerstones of cinema entertainment, but his effort is by no means exploitative: This second outing from the German director is a serious psychological power struggle between two not-so-mild-mannered females — the elderly, strict piano teacher Traude and her jailed pupil Jenny, a delinquent still in her teens.

In Jenny, Traude sees a great talent for classical piano, and believes this skill may be the young girl’s ticket out of prison, out of her devastating life and into a rich, fulfilling existence. All of a sudden, Traude has a mission in her life — to save the gifted but very, very reluctant Jenny. This might be done by getting Jenny into a local competition for promising piano players; the “four minutes” of the title is the time allocated for each contestant to show off their capacities.

These four minutes, when Jenny both plays and brutalises a grand piano at a concert venue, also provide the movie’s climactic finale — and Scott Hicks’ Australian Shine (1996), about another troubled pianist, David Helfgott, comes to mind here — but it’s a sequence that’s truly cinematic and exciting, musically shot and edited: perhaps the most powerful few minutes of filmmaking seen in Sofia this year.

Kraus’s direction is altogether impressive. Veteran Monica Bleibtreu and Hannah Herzsprung — both tense, both splendid in efforts that combine naturalistic performances with a colourful movie-acting sensibility — are featured in almost every frame, often together, but their battle of wills never comes off as “talking heads”, or the stuff of a TV-movie. Creative camerawork from cinematographer Judith Kaufmann takes advantage of their mostly confined environments and chilly exteriors; needless to say, a somewhat predictable grey and gloomy colour tone suits the mental climate here. Enriching supporting characters, as well as flashbacks to the convoluted Traude’s traumatising experiences during World War II, flesh out the drama.

The script — also bearing Kraus’s signature — may be accused of recycling familiar themes of personal rehabilitation, and to be overly explanatory and overly “classical” in terms of movie dramaturgy, with build-ups and slow-downs, as well as its beliefs in the redeeming power of art, but it’s nonetheless a well-considersd piece of writing.

That Four Minutes was met with a bit of hesitant enthusiasm amongst the jury participants in Sofia (both in the international jury as well as in the FIPRESCI cohort), though it finally received the International Critics’ Prize, could have something to do with this: Even though Kraus’s film is undeniably well-executed in every respect, there is a certain conservatism going on within. But the lack of any avant-garde qualities might widen its appeal to audiences beyond those who attend film festivals. No one should be surprised if this is a future German Oscar contender, following the past years’ successful entries Downfall and The Lives of Others.