German Film Festival: The German Lesson

In wartime Germany, a young boy helps a local artist to hide his ‘degenerate’ paintings from the local policeman: the boy’s father

Based on the 1960 novel by beloved writer Siegfried Lenz, The German Lesson is a different type of war-time story from Germany: a tale of civilians, rather than soldiers, and set on an isolated part of the North German coast, rather than in a major city.

Teenager Siggi is imprisoned in a juvenile detention facility just after the war. As part of his rehabilitation he has to write an essay on the topic ‘The Joys of Duty’, and this leads him to delve into his traumatic experiences during the war. As a boy he lives with his father Jens, a local policeman and bully, and his submissive mother Gudrun. His adored older sister Hilke has left home, but returns for visits. Siggi is very close to his father’s best friend Max, an artist who lives nearby, and his wife Ditte. When an order comes through that Max’s art is ‘degenerate’ and must be destroyed, Siggi finds his loyalties stretched to the limit.

The German Lesson is a multi-layered work. Fundamentally a slow-burn, it still contains moments of narrative twists and turns, maintaining a certain level of suspense throughout. Young actor Levi Eisenblätter brings a remarkable maturity to his portrayal of the child Siggi. Tom Gronau is equally good in the smaller role of Siggi the adolescent. Ulrich Noethen takes on the difficult role of Jens, bringing an authenticity to the character which helps temper some of the dislike we might feel for him. The seemingly ubiquitous Tobias Moretti is outstanding as Max. ( Moretti also appears in another German Film Festival offering, The House.) As Ditte and Gudrun respectively, the wonderful Johanna Wokalek and Sonja Richter round out the main cast, along with Maria Dragus as Hilke.

Director Christian Schwochow directs with a firm but gentle hand, working on the foundation of an excellent screenplay by his mother, Heide Schwochow. The German Lesson explores the effect of war and duty-to-country, on ordinary citizens. The bullying in Siggi’s home echoes the larger bullying on a national level. It is also a testament to the power of art to rescue people, nations, and souls. Max’s paintings sit at the heart of the narrative, yet the narrative itself only lives when Siggi learns to find his voice through writing.

A work of bleak beauty, humanity and depth, The German Lesson is a film which can be viewed on multiples levels.

The German Lesson screens as part of the German Film Festival at Palace Nova Eastend and Prospect.

Click here for further details, and to book tickets.

Humane, moving, and beautiful 4.5 stars

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