Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Dying is full of glorious contradictions, many of which occur within the same conversation" | Photo: © Jakub Bejnarowicz/Port au Prince, Schwarzweiss, Senator

Recommending that someone sits down to a three-hour drama named Dying is not the easiest sell, but Matthias Glasner’s film is a lot more sprightly and funny than it sounds on paper. Death is present but there’s also a hell of a lot of living going in this enjoyably complex, character-driven drama that isn’t afraid to tackle weighty subjects including suicide, addiction and terminal illness. Split into overlapping segments, three of which come from different perspectives of a single family, Glasner puts ideas including love and commitment under the microscope so we can see their intricate layering and contradictions.

Though an ensemble piece, the film largely revolves around orchestra conductor Tom Lunies (Lars Eidinger) - although it’s a while before that will become apparent. First, we meet his mother Lissy (Corinna Harfouch) in the middle of a crushingly awful morning. She is sitting in a mess of her own excrement, gingerly trying to talk on the phone, while her late-stage Parkinson’s afflicted husband Gerd (Hans-Uwe Bauer, whose every movement in this film is heartbreaking) has dropped by to visit their neighbour with no clothes on.

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What follows in this segment is the tragicomedy of not-quite-coping, while the couple’s two children are always a distracted phone call away. Glasner - whose film includes a carefully orchestrated piece of music down the line - proves to be a master conductor himself, knowing just when to let the emotions build or sing out. There’s dark humour as we watch the bewildered Gerd be the ‘eyes’ for Lissy as she drives their car but stabs of raw emotion are never far away as we watch her fight to hold in herself back so as not to upset Tom on the phone. Soon, however, the children will also be forced to see past their own blindspots to the decline in their parents.

Tom has got a lot going on even without considering his parents. He’s in the process of trying to get his depressed friend Bernard (Robert Gwisdek) to stop tinkering with his latest work, also named Dying, so that he can get it performed. When someone declares of the piece, “It’s nice, but it’s too long” you can’t help but feel Glasner is winking at us about his film. The irony, of course, is that not only is Tom barely in control of his workspace, his homelife is even more chaotic largely because he’s recently become a sort of surrogate dad to the daughter of his ex-girlfriend Liv (Anna Bederke) as she sees him as more dependable than the real father.

Tom’s sister Ellen (Lilith Stangenberg) is even less reliable than him when it comes to helping their parents. Working as a dental nurse by day, she’s basically just counting the hours until she can get black-out drunk again. Her segment becomes a scherzo of absurdity and, occasionally, cringe, as her affair with married dentist Sebastian (Ronald Zehrfeld) spikes the rest of the film’s relationships in unexpected ways.

Dying is full of glorious contradictions, many of which occur within the same conversation - such as a gripping centrepiece interaction between Tom and his mother over tea and cake that runs the full gamut from love and confessional to repulsion and back again. Glasner isn’t scared to let things become talky - and won a deserved Silver Bear in Berlin for the script - but he also films the lengthy passages of orchestra music in ways that become equally engrossing.

Bauer’s performance may be the most immediately affecting of those on display here, but every member of this ensemble displays expert flexibility in moving from the tragedy to comedy in ways that never let us see the join.

There is talk in the film of “the thin line” in art in order to be successful - the explanation of which I will leave for the characters - but Glasner walks it confidently as well as balancing light and shade with care. The interactions may sometimes be outlandish but they still feel rooted in the harsh reality of what it means to be in relationships and the ethical choices that are being made about living and dying along the way are punchy and thought provoking.

Reviewed on: 29 Feb 2024
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Dying packshot
Ensemble drama about members of an estranged family.

Director: Matthias Glasner

Writer: Matthias Glasner

Starring: Lars Eidinger, Saskia Rosendahl, Ronald Zehrfeld, Corinna Harfouch, Anna Bederke, Lilith Stangenberg, Kailas Mahadevan, Tom Böttcher, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Robert Gwisdek, Jens Weisser, Karmela Shako, Sidney Fahlisch, Christopher Köberlein, Alina Hidic

Year: 2024

Runtime: 180 minutes

Country: Germany


BIFF 2024

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