by Matt Levine
Although the title refers to the double life led by its German/Norwegian protagonist, Two Lives might just as easily describe the film itself—one half political espionage thriller, one half seething family drama. Unfortunately, though, in its rush to explicate the historical backstory and its almost obligatory scenes of loved ones arguing reservedly, Two Lives doesn’t excel on either wavelength. At only 97 minutes, this is a film that could have benefited from a slower pace and more careful attention to character development and emotional subtlety—brevity might be the soul of wit, but complexity is an essential component as well. Despite its shortcomings, however, Two Lives does offer a few pleasures—most notably strong performances from a skilled cast and the ravishing Norwegian scenery—and the potency of the film’s half-realized ambitions remains compelling despite their tepid realization. It’s not the blistering drama or magisterial historical commentary it pretends to be, but it's a reasonably engaging hour-and-a-half nonetheless.
Directors: Georg Maas, Judith Kaufmann
Producers: Axel Helgeland, Rudi Teichmann, Dieter Zeppenfeld
Writers: Georg Maas, Christoph Tölle, Ståle Stein Berg, Judith Kaufmann, Hannelore Hippe (novel)
Cinematographer: Judith Kaufmann
Editor: Hansjörg Weißbrich
Music: Christoph Kaiser, Julian Maas
Cast: Juliane Köhler, Liv Ullmann, Sven Nordin, Ken Duken, Julia Bache-Wiig, Rainer Bock, Thomas Lawincky, Klara Manzel, Vicky Krieps, Dennis Storhøi, Ursula Werner, Jürgen Rißmann
Premiere: October 19, 2012 (Norway)
US Theatrical Release: February 28, 2014
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
The film begins quite strongly, actually, as the opening credits are accompanied by a dense soundtrack featuring news recordings about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in 1989. We’re then thrust with little explanation into the trappings of a fast-paced spy thriller: in a German airport, we witness a Norwegian woman with short-cropped blond hair sneak into a restroom, don a black wig and sunglasses, and boldly reemerge onto the Berlin streets. At an abandoned orphanage, she creates a diversion and steals into the archives, where she finds a withered ledger of residents’ names and slices off a corner of the document. Shortly thereafter, she meets up with a shady German contact who forebodingly warns her to protect their undisclosed secret. Set in the former East Germany in 1990, with the paisley set design and pervasive smoking so indicative of that relatively recent time period, Two Lives initially seems like a John le Carré thriller embroiled in a volatile post-Cold War setting.
A somewhat sloppy flashback two weeks earlier introduces us to the woman in disguise, Katrine Evensen Myrdal (Juliane Köhler), and her domestic “second life” in a picturesque coastal Norwegian town. With an apparently cushy job at a design firm and an idyllic family, Katrine seems truly at peace in this less extraordinary existence. Unfortunately, this is where the film begins to falter: it’s important that we become intensely sympathetic with Katrine’s family, considering Two Lives’ dramatic engagement relies upon their relatability, but the characters are sketched out too curtly to register as flesh-and-blood people. There’s Bjarte (Sven Nordin), her gruff yet tender husband, a submarine commander; their daughter Anne (Julia Bache-Wiig), a wide-eyed law student with a newborn baby; and Katrine’s mother, Ase (Liv Ullmann), taciturn and watchful.
Their tranquil seclusion becomes threatened when they're visited by a persistent German lawyer named Sven (Ken Duken). He informs the Myrdals that his firm is pursuing a lawsuit against the Norwegian government for reparations to the so-called Lebensborn children—the shamed offspring of German fathers and Norwegian mothers born during the Nazi occupation of Norway. Katrine was one such child, separated from her mother and interned in a Norwegian camp until she was sent back to East Berlin as part of Germany’s initiative to rebuild the Aryan race after World War II. Eventually, and under conspicuously vague circumstances, Katrine escaped to Denmark and finally back to Norway, where she was one of the few deported children reunited with their mothers. As the film’s opening titles are happy to inform us, Two Lives is based on a true story—though the disheartening plight undergone by real-life victims is overshadowed by the film’s restless and generic plotting, obedient to the conventions of both political thrillers and family dramas.
For the first half-hour, Two Lives simply seems like a well-intentioned message movie decrying the inhumanity and nationalism that defined the Second World War and its aftermath. As the film continues to twist and turn, however, with Katrine’s true identity becoming increasingly murkier, Two Lives becomes a nervy deconstruction of national identity. What makes us German or Norwegian or American? Is it simply a fallacy instilled by politicians for the sake of hegemony? There are intriguing ideas at the foundation of the film, and occasionally co-directors Georg Maas and Judith Kaufmann expound on them intelligently—as with the manipulation of first-person viewpoint seen in the film’s flashbacks, which intentionally obscures which character’s eyes we’re looking through. For the most part, though, the subtext seems inherent in this real-life historical episode, and it’s hardly indulged with any insight by the film.
Without question, there is talent on display in Two Lives. Some of it is displayed by Maas and Kaufmann, who know how to handle a thrilling suspense sequence: a scene in which Katrine’s granddaughter is snatched from her stroller right in front of her is unexpectedly intense. Even the flashback sequences, as predictable as they are in their graininess and faded color scheme, are visually distinct and well-interwoven with the modern-day story. More impressive, maybe, are performances by a committed cast who try to inject subtlety into the histrionic story. Sven Nordin imbues Bjarte with a wounded insecurity, as his fears of Katrine’s possible infidelity deepen her eventual revelation of her true identity—a secret she’s hidden from him for decades; and Köhler ultimately makes us care for a character who too often comes off as a stoic enigma. Though Liv Ullmann is sorely underutilized in the role of Katrine’s mother, it’s always a pleasure to see her onscreen, and the low-key intensity she brings to her brief appearances can’t help but bring to mind some of her performances in Ingmar Bergman’s films (Autumn Sonata particularly).
These bright spots and moments of creativity, however, can’t fully conceal both a belabored drama and a simplistic thriller. Besides the value of exposing a tragic, little-known aftershock of World War II, it’s hard to discern the film’s involvement with this story. The film is too timid to register as a searing drama—scenes depicting the characters' emotional turmoil too often employ trite images of brooding sufferers peering into the ocean—and its moments of political intrigue are mostly uninterested in the sad parallels of post-World War II and post-Cold War Germany (a globalizing modern era in which notions of nationalism would become even hazier). Two Lives is right to treat this historical subject matter with solemnity—it’s one of many sad subplots that make up the awful tapestry of the Holocaust. But by robbing the story of its fire and intensity, the film turns it into little more than a fast-paced, by-the-numbers footnote.