Film Review: To Life! (★★★)

tolife1To Life!, the latest film from German director Uwe Janson, is a film that seems well suited for today’s audiences. Melding familiar topics like post-Holocaust trauma and the tragedy of terminally ill youth, it hits many of the expected beats. The result is a film that’s effective in engendering pathos, but already feels destined to be forgotten.

The story of To Life! brings together a pair of wounded souls, a young man named Jonas (Max Riemelt) and an older Jewish woman named Ruth (Hannelore Elsner). At the beginning of the film, Jonas has just arrived in Berlin and has been hired to help Ruth move into her new apartment. The two strike up a cordial relationship, aided by Jonas’ striking resemblance to a figure from Ruth’s past. When Jonas returns to deliver a package however, he’s put in the position of hero when he finds her unconscious in her bathtub after a grisly suicide attempt. Following this harrowing experience and her subsequent recovery, these unlikely friends form a deep bond. Over the course of the film, Ruth reveals her history of loss and suffering in the aftermath of WWII and Jonas’ own vulnerability comes to light. As they come to support each other through their struggles, the film attempts to capture the positive feeling of its title, which refers to the common Hebrew exclamation “L’chaim!”.

Much of Janson’s film is told through flashbacks, showing Ruth in her younger years (played by Sharon Brauner) as a cabaret singer. During this time, she falls in love with a handsome German photographer, who conveniently looks identical to Jonas. Unfortunately, the social climate of the post-war period doomed the romance, leaving a lasting feeling of sorrow in Ruth. Of course, when Jonas appears in her life, it brings back all of those repressed feelings.
The physical resemblance provides the initial connection between the pair and the script does little to develop this much further than contrived serendipity. Though the film is intended to be a two-hander, most of the focus is placed on Ruth’s past and its easy emotional triggers, while the severity of Jonas’ illness (he suffers from multiple sclerosis) is kept secret until the very end. When the film wraps up with the expected uplift, Jonas’ storyline is merely a catalyst for Ruth’s growth in retrospect.

It’s a shame that Jonas gets so shortchanged by the narrative, as both Elsner and Riemelt give convincing performances as the leads. They play well off each other and their more emotional scenes pack a real punch. As they go from heartache to joy, you root for them all the way. There’s nothing particularly revelatory or fresh about To Life!, but it’s fine for what it is. These earnest performances and sympathetic personal tragedies should thaw the iciest of hearts.

To Life! will screen at KINO! 2015, which runs from April 9-16 in New York City.