Longing (Sehnsucht), by the German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach, begins and ends with long, uneasy sequences. The film opens with a volunteer fireman attending to a pair of accident victims, only to realize that the "accident" was actually a twisted murder-suicide scheme, and closes with a bunch of kids joyfully discussing the nature of love, destiny and tragedy. In between, there's a simple but deeply enigmatic love story.
Structured as a love triangle, the film is basically a tour de force of love scenes between the volunteer fireman, a steelworker named Markus (Andreas Müller), and the two women he loves — his wife Ella (Ilka Welz), and Rose (Anett Dornbusch), a waitress whom he meets on a training weekend. A beautiful, touching study of the emotional flow of love through faces and bodies, the film slowly creates a shrewd reflection on the links between tragedy as a traditional narrative form and as the way it embodies the shining, chameleonic quality of human emotion. Tragedy is employed as an old structure here, but also as an evolving narrative, an ever-mutating process conveyed by the German director through the balance of spoken dialogue and silent bodies: A scene in which Ella tells Markus the story of Romeo and Juliet is contrasted with near-wordless scenes of kissing and sex. It all serves the deceptively simple plot, which appears to follow the guidelines of conventional tragedy, but ultimately breaks several of the form's dramatic rules.
The powerful dramatic texture is layered over the amazing work of the assembled cast. Grisebach has clearly done extensive research on her location — a Brandenburg village with a population of about two hundred — and her interviews with the locals provided the building blocks of her film. The cast is made up of locals; their faces, shown by Grisebach in patient, detailed close-ups, guide the film to a place of truth, where every emotion, dialogue line and metaphysical theme is genuinely expressed.
There is desire, love, commitment, faithfulness, the innocence of youth, the maturity of dark fates and even death, all gently integrated into the film's emotional narrative. Using stilted, monosyllabic dialogue to precisely define the morality of the characters, the script risks coming off as naïve or simplistic — the nature of amour fou, stripped right to the bone. Delivering such dialogue without irony or silliness should be considered as a great achievement by the director her actors. Grisebach uses the same economy with her storytelling, using violent ellipses to modulate rhythm and emphasize her characters' progressively chaotic self-perception. Moving from an idyllic natural setting to a painful crash of human desires, the camera stays close on the characters, almost adopting subjective perspectives in the shots where natural landscapes are used to portray the ambivalent romantic feelings Markus is unable to control.
Longing is a film with several layers. It explores different perspectives on the nature of love. Pure drama, moral tale, rural (not urban) legend, myth, tragedy in its literal sense, distanced experiment on irony; all of them can be traced here, sometimes working at the same time, but always in concert – never overlapping or neglecting each other. A mature, intelligent film, Longing is a fine example of how cinema can be touching, moving, exciting and intellectually stimulating, all at once.