The second feature of German director Valeska Grisebach is one of the pleasant surprises of the Berlin Competition here – a quietly unassuming tale of marital infidelity told in a brisk 90 minutes that is unexpectedly packed with a raw emotional power. It derives that power as much from the non-professional actors’ performances as from Grisebach’s austere approach to the material. Sehnsucht (Longing) is one of those rare films for which the overused axiom “less is more” is totally justified. With her latest feature, Grisebach could give the Dardenne brothers a run for their money.
The grim tale tells the story of Markus (Andreas Müller), a quiet volunteer of the fire brigades in a small village outside of Berlin, who gets by as a welder. He loves his wife Ella (Ilka Welz) and talks with her about love and mortality following a car “accident” in which he tried to help the victims who, or so they discover, were actually trying to kill themselves. Their discussion forms the basis of what is to follow: an exploration of love, longing and death in their relationship as Markus starts an illicit affair with a waitress (Anett Dornbusch) from another village following a beer-soaked meeting of the local fire brigades at the café where she works. Due to the alcohol, he does not remember their first encounter (in fact, Grisebach wisely shows us only a scene in which he dances alone, then cuts to the morning after) but soon Markus is hooked. His wife, as if by telepathy, breaks down during a choir session without knowing why.
Everything in Sehnsucht is played straight, with the non-professional actors lending an edge of normality that few established actors could (at times the film does not only look but also feels like a documentary). At the same time Müller and his colleagues are also more than capable of conveying their innermost feelings in Grisebach’s numerous close-ups of their faces, which would have cruelly exposed any lack of talent ) which is certainly not the case here. The film’s coda provides a teasing twist on the story that makes the tale go out with a bang. Sehnsucht is certainly among the highlights of this year’s competition.