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FILMS / REVIEWS Germany

Review: Alive

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- This theatre-style drama by German director Michael Siebert follows the final days of two terminally ill lovers

Review: Alive
Wolfram Rupperti and Sophie von Kessel in Alive

Is it possible to meet and fall in love when you only have a few weeks left to live? Theatre actors Sophie and Wolfram (Sophie von Kessele and Wolfram Rupperti) meet in hospital, both of them having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In Michael Siebert’s antiphrastically-titled film Alive [+see also:
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(whose original German title Lebendig is richer in nuance and perhaps pays unwitting tribute to Akira Kurosawa’s incredible film on the same theme Ikiru), they spend the final days of their lives together ahead of their common fate in which life and death instincts intertwine. As Victor Hugo wrote to Juliette Drouet, “to love is more than to live”.

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Sophie clings to memories of times spent on stage. She has a magnificent theatre costume hanging in the middle of her Munich apartment, whose walls are papered with front covers of Berlin magazine Tanztheater, which, together with the theatrical set-up of the film, unfolding almost exclusively indoors, reveals the director’s passion for the world of theatre. But Siebert also shows his knowledge of the governing tools of film language - that is, framing and editing - and how to use them. Looking to the films of Ingmar Bergman, for his debut feature film the German director makes use of the theatrical mechanism which implacably reveals a character’s tragic rise and fall. During Sophie’s most pensive moments, we’re transported via various frames to a long sequence from a theatre play, which will be shown to us close to the end of the film. It sees 14 dancers perform at Munich’s Residenztheater around an immobile Sophie who is about to fall in a sublime totentanz, with Wolfram as the sole spectator (featuring remarkable choreography from Nunzio Lombardo and music from Vera Maria and Matthias Weber). 

For his part, Wolfram suffers greatly from his separation from his daughters Emilia and Pippa (the actor’s real-life daughters Emilia and Philippa Rupperti) and enters into a union tenderly fuelled by the lack of a future. Deluding himself over the potential union of these two realities, he tells Sophie about a dream he has just had: “we were on a beach in the sun, happy, with your son and my daughters”. In reality, Sophie’s son Matisse is an absence which lends form to a failed mother-son relationship, a motherhood potentially sacrificed on the altar of an artistic career. Sophie tries to reach him, obsessively, but he doesn’t answer his phone. She interrogates Matisse’s ex-girlfriend Thia (Cynthia Micas), who is also an actress, for news of him (and the latter admits to having had an abortion: once again exploring life/death and again the refusal of motherhood). Illness is about knowing oneself and learning to rethink who we are; a definitive re-evaluation of one’s life.

Meetings with doctors, nausea, vomiting, heavy nosebleeds and hair falling out in clumps are all tangible and physical signs of death’s approach, bullying their way into everyday life. “I’m no longer a woman”, concludes Sophie, staring into the mirror. In one moment of extreme pretence, she invites a few friends round for dinner, but instead of announcing her impending death, she tells them she’s completed her treatment and declares herself cured. Only her dearest friend Uli (Ulrike Willenbacher) enjoys a genuinely close friendship with her, and reluctantly agrees to help speed up the final act. Michael Siebert isn’t fussed about viewer empathy for his protagonists; he barely touches upon themes such as family ties, illness and the right to put an end to one’s life, insisting instead, somewhat romantically, on human tragedy and love. It’s a shame about Wolfram’s monologue which senselessly adapts the words of the one of the best moments in film history - the finale of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (“of inexhaustible meaning”, wrote André Bazin in 1945) - to a pair of sick lovers, nullifying the great work of subtraction and the emphasis upon the unsaid offered up by the script thus far.

The winner of twenty-plus awards from festivals around the world, including the MIFF – Milan International Film Festival’s Best Film and Best Acting Performance trophy for protagonist Wolfram Rupperti, Alive is self-produced by Siebert’s GTM Entertainment.

(Translated from Italian)

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