A picturesque, Prussian suicide pact | East Villager & Lower East Sider

A picturesque, Prussian suicide pact

Courtesy of Film Movement Odd couple Friedel and Schnoeink contemplate ending it all in a beautifully shot park.

Courtesy of Film Movement
Odd couple Friedel and Schnoeink contemplate ending it all in a beautifully shot park.

BY SEAN EGAN  |  There’s no real reason that “Amour Fou” should work as well as it does.

On paper, it seems to encompass all of the elements that drive people away from so-called “art house cinema.” Its story is a downer. The themes and ideas it plays with are complex and heady — and played out entirely in German. Despite these hurdles, all candidates for limiting its appeal to a wide audience, the movie’s creative team has managed to produce an engaging, beautifully crafted and surprisingly witty little film from some unlikely source material.

Set in the early 1800s, “Amour Fou” tells the story of real-life German poet Heinrich von Kleist, during the last few months of his life. Ever the depressive, the film finds Heinrich taking his melancholic worldview — namely that life is inherently meaningless and full of unbearable pain — to its logical extreme, as he begins to plot out his suicide. The catch, though, is that Heinrich is determined to find a female companion to accompany him in his epic act of self-destruction. Enter the demure Henrietta Vogel, whose admiration for Heinrich’s poetry and recent diagnosis with a mysterious and deadly illness make her uniquely receptive to Heinrich’s eccentric offer. The film tracks the development of their strange relationship, as they march forward towards their violent demise.

The whole thing hangs together, and overcomes the pitfalls inherent to its unbearably heavy content, largely thanks to Jessica Hausner’s carefully measured and impressively stylized direction. There’s a certain lightness of touch to it, which ensures that things never end up feeling too oppressive or excessively bleak. Hausner favors striking, symmetrical, masterfully framed shots, gorgeous in the precision of their composition. She also uses unobtrusive editing techniques, and frequently allows action to play out in long, lingering takes. Her work behind the camera establishes “Amour Fou” as a film beautiful in its elegant simplicity.

Rounding out the visual palette is the lush cinematography of Martin Gschlacht, who renders aristocratic Prussia awash in eye-catching, saturated color. The costume design uses the film’s setting as an opportunity to deck out its characters in handsome, quietly flamboyant, period-appropriate dress.

All of these aesthetic pleasures would be for naught, however, if they weren’t in service of a well-told story. Hausner, who also penned the screenplay, brings the same lightness of touch to her writing as she does her direction, smartly avoiding a melodramatic or overly somber tone. Instead, the screenplay simmers with disarmingly dry wit, accentuating the absurd aspects of the tale and never quite taking anything seriously or at face value (least of all its protagonist).

The film finds amusement in poking fun at the pompousness of 19th century Prussian social conventions, and playing up the pretentiousness and self-centered navel-gazing Heinrich indulges in throughout. It’s a far more clever and entertaining approach to tackling its thematic concerns than playing things straight could ever be.

The actors handle their material with aplomb. As Heinrich, Christian Friedel plays the poet as a sad sack who possesses streaks of pettiness and misplaced confidence. Speaking in a dry, sweetly matter-of-fact tone, Friedel waxes philosophic about existential despair — somehow managing to sound earnest in his fatalism while wringing comedy out of his delivery. On the other end of things, Birte Schnoeink turns in nuanced work as Henrietta, and her ill-fated journey of self-possession is touching without ever being cloying.

“Amour Fou” is equally willing to point out the absurdity of its protagonist’s romantically nihilistic worldview, while also seriously considering its implications. It’s not a film that claims to have any answers to life’s big questions, but is content to at least poke at ideas about mortality, love and social conventions with a sense of humor and style to spare. “Amour Fou,” simply, is art house cinema done right.

AMOUR FOU  |  Written & Directed by Jessica Hausner
Runtime: 96 minutes
In German with English subtitles
At Film Forum
209 W. Houston St. (btw. Varick St. & Sixth Ave.)
Info: 212-727-8110 or filmforum.org