Autumn 1983, the middle of nowhere, aka a village in deepest Swabia. There are 6.000 inhabitants, a single Italian restaurant, an ice parlour and a bread shop. That’s about it apart from the ominous black building at the top of the hill – a psychiatric hospital which everyone refers to as the Irrenhaus, or madhouse.
After Frieder tries to kill himself, he spends some time in the Irrenhaus. The conditions for getting out are that he can’t live with his parents, but no way is he to be left on his own. So he co-opts Höppner into sharing a house. Höppner needs to get away from his rodent-faced stepfather, and besides, he needs Frieder to do the homework needed for him to pass his Abi (German equivalent of “A” levels).
Höppner invites his girlfriend Vera to join them, but she has no great desire to share a house with two 18-year old men. So, they also bring in Cäcilia who no-one seems to like, but she’s a little sweet on Höppner. They are later joined by Pauline, a pyromaniac who Frieder picked up in the Irrenhaus, and Harry, who says he’s gay, but is more adept at getting Vera into bed than her boyfriend is.
There is all sorts of period detail to remind us that we’re in the bleak 1980s – from the police car beetles to the Baader-Meinhof poster on the wall. The need to get out of the miserable drab village is heightened by the threat of military service – which can be escaped by moving to West Berlin.
There is also a, shall we say, eclectic soundtrack with everything from the Undertones to Robert Palmer, and from Mud to some anachronistic Housemartins, plus some presumably period German stuff that I didn’t recognise. And also, of course, there is That Madness song.
As the film progresses Things Happen, albeit little of any great importance. They play badminton and try some shoplifting. They go on endless bike rides and have a party. Few people show much character development, but there is always the brooding presence of Frieder, a ticking bomb waiting to go off at any time, particularly when he’s not taking his meds.
This is an adaptation of a best-selling novel, which doesn’t always survive the transition between the different media. The story contains a number of episodes, which are often not given enough time to breathe, and there is a disjointed lack of structure which means that it struggles to form a concrete whole.
Many of the characters are not allowed the time to develop that was presumably allowed in the novel. Pauline, the green-haired possible arsonist and Cäcilia, the violin-playing prodigy stay very much on the edge of the story and could have been much better used. And because the film uses the novel’s first person narrative, it is very much a film by and about young men, even though the director is a woman.
At one stage, Frieder gnomically says “I didn’t want to kill myself, I just wanted to end my life. There’s a difference.” There may well be, and this could have been an interesting discussion, but the comment just hangs in the air and nothing is done with it. We often see Frieder as the others see him – as a dark cloud bringing the threat of chaos – but don’t really get a sense of how he experiences his own depression.
The person who comes closest to this is Höppner’s mother, who takes her son aside and asks him to go easy on his troubled mate. The way she seems to understand Frieder’s illness makes you think that she could have deep depression herself – after all, she never managed to flee the humdrum village that they are all trying to escape. Yet again, the germ of an interesting idea is not brought to fruition.
This is an interesting enough film, but one which manages to be neither eventful nor expansive enough to keep us fully engaged. You feel that we’re missing things which looked good on the page but remain just out of our grasp. Its maybe worth a visit, but somehow feels like its not as good as it could have been.