Four Minutes is a film about prisons, and escape, though it's more than a prison escape movie. Jenny von Loeben (Hannah Herzsprung) is a killer, a violently unhappy young woman, but she is no less confined than the prison's aging piano teacher Traude Krüger (Monica Bleibtreu). A contest for musicians under 21 offers both women a chance for freedom.

The piano has long held a fascination for film-makers. The keyboard whose praises were sung by McCartney and Wonder is a tremendously visual thing. The regimented ranks of black and white and the fast movement of fingers across it have appeared in any number of films, and the relationship between artist and instrument has been the core of any number of award winning works.

Copy picture

Here, the piano is donated by Krüger, bought from her own wages with the assistance of hangdog warder Mütze (Sven Pippig). She has been piano teacher at the prison since the war. In an early confrontation with the prison's director he insists she call him Meyerbeer rather than Herr Direktor; she simply states that her first prison governer had the same expectation. His name? Obersturmbannführer.

Frau Krüger is a survivor, a desperate and lonely woman trapped in a lost past. In flashbacks we see her wartime history as a paramedic, in a hospital and prison on the same grounds as her current employment. She's haunted by the memory of Hannah (Kathrin Kestler), a young colleague who became an inmate and pupil.

Her current student Jenny is trouble, but has amazing talent. After a series of violent incidents, she is, after tense discussions in the Direktor's office, to be entered into a competition for young musicians. It's hoped that her success will reflect well upon the prison, and so too upon Herr Meyerbeer's career.

As this is a film about music, the score is obviously important. Schumann features heavily, as does the "negro music" that Krüger despises. The real highlight is the final number, but to discuss that deeply would be to spoil its impact. Suffice to say it's stunning, beautifully presented, and is a triumphant conclusion to the film. This is a brilliant work, capable of speaking to a variety of audiences. The prisons that hold our heroines are physical and social, real and imagined.

Four Minutes is ably served by its cast. While technically a two-hander, with the central relationship between teacher and pupil, one survivor and another excellently developed by Bleibtreu and Herzsprung, the supporting roles all bear realistic weight. The prison's staff, the other prisoners, Jenny's estranged family, all convince. Mütze is often accompanied by his precocious daughter Clara (Amber Bongard), and again this is a well constructed relationship which never fails to convince.

This is Chris Kraus' second film as writer/director, and he shows a confident touch with both. It's easy to draw comparisons with other modern German directors like Oliver Hirschbiegel, and Kraus' treatment of the prison environment is on a par with that of Das Experiment. While Hirshbiegel has gone on to Hollywood "success" with The Invasion, it's to be hoped that Kraus' talent will see him better rewarded.

Four Minutes is an excellent film. It's fair to draw comparisons between it, Downfall, and The Lives Of Others. German cinema is going through something of a renaissance, and Four Minutes is a continuation of that trend towards brilliance.

Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2008
Share this with others on...
Four Minutes packshot
A young prisoner receives piano lessons which change her life.
Amazon link

Director: Chris Kraus

Writer: Chris Kraus

Starring: Monica Bleibtreu, Hannah Herzsprung, Sven Pippig, Richy Müller, Jasmin Tabatabai, Stefan Kurt, Vadim Glowna

Year: 2006

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany

Search database: