Judge Jonathan Weiss doesn't usually ask for thirds. It goes straight to his hips.
Ich bin ein Berliner.
The coolest thing about reviewing DVDs is that sometimes a movie shows up in your mailbox that you would never, ever, never ever never in a million years pick up yourself. Her Third is one such movie. If you were trolling the aisles of your local video rental spot on the most boring day of your life determined to rent something to while away an hour or two, it is an almost a certain bet that you would not stop in front of this non-descript black spine with the words "Armin Mueller-Stahl in Her Third" and pick it up—not even out of curiosity (unless your last name happens to be Mueller-Stahl or something—but really, what are the chances of that?).
But let's say you are related to Mueller-Stahl in some way or picked it up because the title made you think that it could be a saucy little number about a naughty little threesome—what then? Other than the back cover blurb, which tells you of its pedigree from the 1972 Venice Film Festival, you won't learn too much about what Her Third is really about. Don't bother going to Amazon or the movie lover's bible—the IMDb—because you won't find any kind of summary there either.
And if you were a mainstream kind of renter that would be enough to tuck Her Third right back onto the shelf. But you're not that kind of renter—you're searching through the foreign film section after all (not to mention reading this review). And so, with a shrug, you keep hold of it and head on over to the checkout counter—a little sheepishly maybe because it could be a saucy little number about a naughty little threesome.
Facts of the Case
Margit has made a decision. She needs companionship. Day in and day out she works at a chemical factory somewhere in Germany. When the day is done, she comes home to her two daughters—each one conceived from a different relationship. One day while talking to Lucie, her best friend at the factory, Margit inquires about a man sitting at another table in the cafeteria—the man with the funny name—Hrdlitschka. Though she knows practically nothing about this man, Margit is sure that he is the one for her. Now, this seemingly shy, conservative, and quiet woman just has to get him to notice her, like her, love her, and agree to become her lover, husband, and the father of her two kids. What could be easier?
Her Third caused quite a stir when it was released in 1972. Here was a film about an unmarried woman in her thirties caring for two children from two different fathers while working at a chemical factory. And if that wasn't enough, there's a scene where she shares an intimate yet brief kiss with another woman. These were two really provocative ideas 30 years ago. When watching today, however, the only reaction you may have is, "Oh those wacky East Germans."
Her Third is definitely a slice of the 70s, preserved for all time. For instance, when else would the extensive use of (the much underrated) xylophone and flute be used in a movie soundtrack? Makes you want to pull out your beanbag chair and fire up the lava lamp it does. But if you delve into the supplemental material you'll also learn that in many ways Her Third is also a living and breathing document of a social movement meant to thoroughly integrate women into society and the workforce as equals. What's most interesting about this is that by today's standards there's nothing even slightly unusual about Margit's situation. To get right down to it, Her Third could be viewed as the East German ancestor of Sex and the City. (That's probably a good line to throw out at dinner parties, by the way.)
Now don't go off thinking that Margit is the spitting image of Carrie Bradshaw, because she isn't. For one thing, working at a chemical factory is far less glamorous than writing a syndicated column. For another, Margit doesn't have the kind of support group Carrie is so lucky to have. Margit has Lucie. Lucie is gutsier than Margit, has a buddy-with-benefits situation going on with a factory co-worker, and looks quite remarkably like Margot Kidder. But then she doesn't have two teen girls to look after (and neither does Ms. Bradshaw). All in all we don't learn too much about Lucie, but she is nice to have around as a sounding board for Margit because, after all, Her Third is Margit's story.
Thing is, it's not an easy one to follow. Not at first. It might take some time before you fully realize what they hey is going on. It starts out looking like a black and white newsreel with shots of female workers in the factory with dialogue between an interviewer and what sounds to be a factory manager talking about the kinds of wages women are making there. Do not touch the remote; you have not made a mistake; this is how Her Third begins. Why? Absolutely no idea. (Oh those whacky East Germans.)
The next thing you're bound to notice is there are points where you're not exactly sure what you're watching. Well, to be more precise, when you're watching. Her Third uses a non-linear style of storytelling that thrusts the viewer to different stages in Margit's life—times that relate directly with something going on in Margit's present. You'll know when this happens from a super that pops up on the screen, almost like a chapter heading. Thing is, Margit looks pretty much the same age throughout (no crazy age defying make-up here) so at first you might be a little confused. This does get easier to detect once you get used to it.
The flashbacks make up a big chunk of Her Third as we first learn about what Margit's destiny was before starting work at the factory and then finding out about her first, and then her second relationship. Her first relationship is with one of her chemistry professors; her second, with a blind man (Armin Mueller-Stahl). For various reasons neither work out. This movie is about Margit's decision to forego waiting for love to strike again and taking matters into her own hands to find "her third."
Margit is played by Jutta Hoffmann, who does a wonderful and subtle job of portraying a woman who has taken her destiny into her own hands. At times sweet and spontaneous, at others frustrated and lonely, Margit is a fully realized character—she's someone you know—not in East Germany, not in 1972, but right now, wherever you are. She could be your co-worker, your friend, or your neighbour. One scene in particular that stands out is when the daughter of her first relationship comes running to her because Dagmar, the daughter from her second relationship, keeps running into things and this time gets knocked down because she ran headlong into a tree. Remember, Margit's second relationship was with a blind man. Margit comes running out of the house and picks up Dagmar like a wet sack of cement and races her back inside the house. At first she quickly checks to see if her daughter's physically hurt in any way, but then, even more importantly she tries to get her daughter to see something. Anything. She tests her. She pleads with her. She paints a huge red dot on a page and begs her daughter to tell her what colour it is. In another movie, a mother in this type of scene might be played sad or resigned or quietly compassionate, but in Her Third Margit is frantic, and angry, and ruthless, and terrified that her daughter really is slipping into blindness; so if she needs to shake Dagmar like a rag doll to promote sight then that is what she's going to do—not that it will, of course, but that's how desperate she is—how desperate any mother would be. This is not a long scene, but it's a powerful one precisely because it rings so true.
The hand-held camera technique used so frequently today is used extensively throughout Her Third and it helps evoke the sensation that this here is a slice-of-life—but sometimes it's also a point of distraction. There are moments when the camera totally loses the actors and it takes a second or two to reorient yourself as the viewer. Colours are muted, warm, and very much in the sepia family. The sound is in mono, which is just fine because though you're German, you're reading the subtitles anyway. This kind of brings us to the DVD opening menu. A little confusing. You see, there's a choice between English and German; and initially you may choose English only to think that perhaps you're about to see a dubbed version. So you may go back to the opening menu screen (if you can figure out how) and choose German, only to see that the menu text is now written in German. This then makes you think that your initial choice was the right one and so back you go again to the opening screen, unless of course you haven't already ejected the DVD, broken it in two and whipped the pieces across the room like Japanese Ninja shuriken.
It's nice that they've included a selection of extras, and if you're so inclined you'll probably learn a thing or two about what was going on in East Germany at the time, as far as the whole integration of women in the workforce goes. How interested you are in watching a true propaganda style documentary like the one that opens the film is up to you. What might be more revealing is the in-depth essay about the importance of Her Third to East German cinema. It's actually probably a good idea to give this a read first before you start watching. Not only does it put the political and social climate of the time into context but it also gives a very insightful summary of the film itself. Finally, there's a new interview with writer, Günther RInterview with Writer Günther Rücker2;cker who talks about where the idea for Her Third came from, his initial feelings when confronted with the finished film for the first time, the struggle to include the gentle scene between Margit and Lucie, and lastly his current feelings about the film. It's a short interview that feels like it could have gone on much longer. It actually cuts off quite abruptly.
It may take you a while to warm up to Her Third. It definitely takes Her Third a while to get warmed up too—and that's being charitable. Before the feature even starts, the opening menu alone is enough to try your patience. When the film actually starts, don't be surprised if you find yourself wondering why you're watching a German documentary on female chemical factory workers. And even when that bit is over, it is quite likely that your finger will remain hovering over the stop button for quite some time. However, if you refrain from actually pressing it, you may find yourself rewarded with a sweet slice-of-life story told in an intriguing non-linear style.
Margit is found not guilty—and will hopefully find the relationship she's always wanted. After all they do say that the third time's the charm.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Interview with Writer Günther Rücker
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