Judge Michael Nazarewycz has enough work juggling just one life, thank you very much.
She built one life on love, the other on deceit.
The number of unique story lines that come from World War II, even decades after the war ended, never ceases to amaze. This one, as the saying goes, is based on a true story.
Facts of the Case
During World War II, German soldiers in Nazi-occupied Norway had relations with Norwegian women, many of whom became pregnant and gave birth to "war children." The German government took these children from their mothers with the hopes of maintaining purity of race. Katrine Myrdal (Juliane Köhler, Downfall) was one of those children.
In 1990, in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany opened the window for lawsuits to be filed on behalf of these now-adult children. Attorney Sven Solbach (Ken Duken, Inglourious Basterds) is particularly interested in including Katrine and her mother, Åse (Liv Ullman, Persona), in the class-action suit, because they are the only parent/child pairing known to have been reunited (Katrine escaped East Germany when she was in her 20s).
Katrine is reluctant to participate, wishing not to reopen old wounds. But as the lawyer persists and uncovers more information, Katrine's real reason for not wanting to participate comes to light.
The title and the opening scene give away the film's core hook. The title, of course, is Two Lives, and the opening scene finds Katrine passing through airport customs with one appearance, and then making a quick-change in the ladies room—clothes, wig, and all—to emerge with an entirely different look. It doesn't matter that you know the hook, though. The end of the scene still leaves you asking, "Who is this woman and which is the real her?"
Soon after Katrine's quick change and a shady investigation at what looks like an old nursery, curiosity is piqued further still when the film flashes back just three weeks prior to show Katrine living the ultimate life of contentment as a wife, mother, grandmother, and daughter; all on the gorgeous (albeit rainy) rocky coast of Norway. This serene life is disturbed when Solbach appears, prompting Katrine to make a clandestine call from a pay phone in the middle of the night to tell someone named Hugo that Vera is calling and she is in danger.
It all sets up so perfectly. And yet director Georg Maas (NeuFundLand) proceeds to take the rest of the first two acts and use that time to decide whether he wants a taut historical thriller or a gripping family drama. Both can exist in the same film, of course, but here they simply don't mesh well.
A big part of the problem is the history behind the story—even in its simplest terms—isn't well-known. While Maas opts for a traditional approach of being vague during the film's numerous cloak-and-dagger moments, slowly constructing the collision course of past and present, it all comes across as convoluted. Because the history is obscure, we don't know why certain things are happening, but the film assumes we do. This even detracts from some cleverly-filmed flashbacks using an 8mm camera (or lens filters to simulate such).
Maas eventually gives the viewer a clear lesson during a courtroom scene (in English, no less) to close out the second act, and while it helps put everything in place, it is a difficult trip to get there.
But oh, getting to that third act. With the paths of past and present at their eventual crossing, Maas offers a devastating reveal, followed by 30 minutes of some of the finest dramatic direction I've seen. It is taut and emotional, remarkably real, and spellbinding until the film's final scene.
The other great challenge the story faces is with the Katrine character. She wants your sympathy because her present is in jeopardy, but she doesn't necessarily deserve it because her past is questionable. Köhler is remarkable in her performance, making Katrine as sympathetic as possible, given the circumstances.
The performances from the rest of the cast are superb—an ensemble tour du force. Despite the challenges that the bulk of the film's story and presentation pose, this cast comes to play. The big name in the film is The Norwegian Angel, screen legend Liv Ullman, and she delivers (no surprise). But Ingmar Bergman's muse isn't the only big talent on the screen. Every other performer is a stand-out, particularly Sven Nordin as Katrine's husband, Bjarte.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic video presentation of Two Lives is rough. Just about any scene with a bright point in it—whether that light source is a lamp or a neon sign or a bright (enough) exterior featured in a dark (enough) interior scene (say, a window)—suffers from that bright spot being washed out to the point of being distracting. There are also a couple of scenes that look like rough, unfinished cuts.
Conversely, the Dolby 5.1 Surround track is quite good. Christoph Kaiser and Julian Maas' score is full and rich, and never interferes with the ambient noise of the film or the dialogue (for those of you who might speak Norwegian or German). Oddly, the subtitles aren't that good, with rough edges on many of the letters. It isn't exactly 8-bit, but it's quite noticeable.
The only extra on the disc is the film's trailer. It's unfortunate, as a history lesson about the Norwegian "war children" would have made for an interesting—and contextual—companion piece.
Despite the heavy weight the viewer must carry thanks to the imbalance between the mystery and the family threads, Two Lives offers a unique tale in the aftermath of two of history's remarkable moments: World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. That, coupled with the terrific ensemble (and despite the dearth of bonus material), make this DVD very much worth a look.
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