Switzerland / Languages: German, French / Subtitled
Nina Hoss is without a doubt one of arthouse cinema’s finest. She’s steadily continued to hold her own in European cinema, most notably in her portrayal of a holocaust survivor in Christian Petzold’s 2014 drama, Phoenix. And now, she continues her streak in her latest, My Little Sister.
In My Little Sister Hoss plays a different key. Burrowing into a domestic, modern role as playwright Lisa Nielsen, Hoss delivers a heartwarming and controlled meditation on the extremities of fraternal love in the face of terminal illness. Hopscotching between the Berlin arts world and the Swiss countryside, the film examines the lengths of brotherly love. Following the leukemia diagnosis of her brother Sven (Lars Eidinger), Lisa stops writing altogether, dropping her family and career in a stand of familial and creative solidarity. But at what lengths is she in denial?
Sven, on the other hand, plunges entirely into a sort of capricious denial by fanatically memorizing his lines in his upcoming performance of King Lear, and never appearing in public without an unconving toupée. Eidinger is brilliant and heart-wrenching.
Their kinship is evident from the first take of the film, as we fade into a clinical, long take that pans to Lisa while she donates a bone marrow transfusion. It becomes clear within the first few moments of the two siblings jaunting around Berlin together, they’re gripping tightly at the threads of their artistic lives together. Yet the push and pull surfaces later on, when Lisa’s husband Martin (Jens Albinus) presses for a transfer to the Swiss town of Leysin.
Co-starring alongside Lars Eidinger, another German powerhouse, what becomes fairly evident is that the two actors are slightly overqualified in the presence of a somewhat mezzo-brow script. This isn’t to say that the film fails to meet it’s emotional crescendos, or charm astutely, it does, but whether that’s to the credit of the directors or the actors’ skill, is unclear.
My Little Sister is wary not to fall into oversentimentality given it’s all-too-often mishandled subject matter, nor does it inundate the plot with superfluous clichés. It deals elegantly with the premature grief that comes along with the dawn of a terminal illness.
What’s particularly refreshing is the way the film manages to zero in on illness from the point of view of a hungry artist. In Sven’s eyes, his illness is simply limiting, frustrating, a barrier between his art as a theatre actor, once at the top of the German scene, performing for Berlin’s prestigious Schaubühne Theatre.
Where the film really flourishes is in the wry bits of humour that shift the sombre tone and make the chemistry between Hoss and Eidinger really shine. DP Filip Zumbrunn’s warm, pristine visuals are also another notable feature.
While the plot deals within the unit of a bourgeois, German family unit (Name-drops include Rilke and Brecht) the themes it grapples with still manage to ring universal come the final act. This little number, which was in competition at last year’s Berlinale, is Switzerland’s submission to the Best International Feature category of this year’s Academy Awards. Hoss and Eidnger’s charming onscreen chemistry has also garnered the film a bit of traction in arthouse circles.
And one thing’s for sure: Nina Hoss is a damn good actress.
‘My Little Sister’ is now available on VOD on Film Movement.