Starring Maren Eggert. In German, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
A donkey and a dog walk into an abandoned cabin. The dog eats a rabbit while the donkey stares out a window at an overcast sky. Sorry, there’s no punch line to this story. And the same can be said of this vexingly cerebral exercise from Germany.
The title nods to Yasujirō Ozu’s silent masterpiece I Was Born, But…, and this music-free movie also pays homage to other auteurs who remain more influential among filmmakers than with the general public. But writer-director Angela Schanelec shows little wit in her tributes, and displays only the chilliest regard for her on-screen creations.
What plot there is revolves around middle-aged art teacher Astrid (Marin Eggert), raising two young children after the recent death of her husband. The older boy apparently disappeared for a week, causing consternation at school. Astrid spends time lecturing his teachers about authenticity, or something, while they remain as still as subjects in the paintings she views without comment at a Berlin museum.
This is all cryptic as hell. Whether our grim protagonist is discussing filmmaking with a foreign director or buying a used bike from a stranger, the few tangibles that do emerge are surprisingly banal. For example, Astrid is increasingly cold to her kids and distracts herself by sleeping with—wait for it—their tennis instructor!
Schanelec’s group of Berlin filmmakers includes Christian Petzold, who shares some of her formalist aesthetics but marries them to narratives that move steadily forward while maintaining mystery along the edges. Franz Rogowski, the German Joaquin Phoenix type who recently starred in Petzold’s sublime Transit, plays a teacher here, in a subplot that likewise goes nowhere.
The director’s mulish approach to doggedly elliptical storytelling is not without visual rewards. But too much of this stilted installation piece is like a Jeff Wall photograph come to life, delivering details that mostly prove to be less interesting than what your imagination would have supplied.