Popular cinema places a lot of stock in stories about the redemptive power of love stories in which love turns a skeptic into a true believer, an ill-tempered miser into a philanthropist, or a broken spirit into an undamaged specimen free from the taint of failures past. This year's Berlin and Beyond Film Festival offers two very different takes on the theme: Matthias Glasner's The Free Will (Der Freie Wille) and Doris Dörrie's The Fisherman and His Wife Why Women Never Get Enough (Der Fischer und Seine Frau Warum Frauen Nie Genug Bekommen).
No Berlin and Beyond would be complete without at least one film that turns the concept of redemptive love upside down and inside out with relentless aggression. In 2005 that film was Head-On (Gegen die Wand), directed by Fatih Akin. Its gritty exploration of a mutually destructive downward spiral forged within a marriage of convenience was mercilessly high impact and emotionally challenging. This year's contender for most controversial confrontation with the devil inside is The Free Will, a movie about an unlikely love affair set within the context of a current hot-button topic: the effectiveness of rehabilitation for repeat sex offenders.
Opening with a scene of brutal rape, The Free Will doesn't immediately elicit much sympathy for its protagonist, Theo (Jürgen Vogel), a marginalized dishwasher in a middle-school cafeteria. Cut to nine years and four months later, as Theo is being released from a mental institution into a halfway house for a crew of equally wayward characters. "They tell you at the hospital it's a new chance," the home's caretaker, Sascha (André Hennicke), cautions him. "But the others call the front door the gateway to hell." Nevertheless, Theo seeks to refamiliarize himself with normality. He lands a job in a print shop, buys himself new clothing, eats his dinners at the neighborhood trattoria. He forces himself into a punishing exercise regime, while down the hall his flatmates cry out at night and blast heavy metal through the walls. He and Sascha become fast friends and sparring partners at the local dojo, and for a time it seems as if Theo's demons have moved on to more susceptible prey.
Enter Nettie (Sabine Timoteo): awkward, unsmiling, and living on her own for the first time at the advanced age of 27 in an attempt to break away from her overbearing father's influence. After an initially unrewarding encounter with Theo during which she tells him she hates all men (and he lets her know he's not that fond of Frauen), they begin to reach out to each other and eventually become a couple.
Naturally, the tensions of their unspoken personal histories remain, seething below the surface of a tenuous bond based on mutual loneliness. At the end of this unflinchingly deliberate two-and-half-hour film, director Glasner leaves the audience grappling with almost the same conundrums he presented in the beginning: can forgiveness be granted even when unsought, and can the unforgivable ever truly be redeemed?
On the opposite face of the aggression-versus-love coin is Dörrie's reconstruction of an old Grimm's fairy tale. Otto (Christian Ulmen) is a soft-spoken fish parasitologist whose unlikely whirlwind romance in Japan with a backpacking fabric designer results in a marriage of mismatched expectations. His new wife, Ida (Alexandra Maria Lara), quickly asserts herself as a woman of ambition, designing first scarves and then dresses based on the various distinctive markings of the koi fish she encounters through Otto. Soon her material desires outstrip Otto's modest means, and the two find themselves locked in a passive-aggressive struggle that is both familiar and poignant. Ida has no difficulty defining what she wants, but what does Otto want? Does he even want to be with her? Why can't he say so?