A sparse wood in sepia. Two girls are playing hide and seek. As one counts to thirty, the other finds one of the few trees around to hide behind. As her mate starts searching, she switches trees. Suddenly, she’s been discovered. Her friend approaches, and they each circle the tree, always 180° away from each other. Then, without warning, the girl being hunted disappears. Cut. Move forward 60 years.
Nina and Mado are friends and lovers. They shop together, dance together, do everything a couple does. The only thing is, they haven’t said anything to Mado’s kids, who still think that the only person that she ever loved was their father. So, they live opposite each other at the top of a block of flats, and slip into each other’s flat whenever they feel like it.
Then Mado has a stroke. When she returns from the hospital, she’s older, frailer, and incapacitated. She can’t speak, can’t move without a wheelchair, and initially it’s not certain to what extent she understands what’s happening around her. A nurse is employed to accompany her 24 hours a day, which somewhat gets in the way of Nina tending to her lover.
At first the nurse appreciates the neighbour’s offer of help, but it starts to get a bit much, and that’s just what she’s aware of. Nina slips into the flat in the middle of the night to sit with Mado. When the nurse is lent a car to drive Mado around, Nina sets to it with a hammer. Of course she is concerned about her friend’s descent into incapacity, but she’s also motivated by a less virtuous surge of jealousy.
And yet Nina seems to be the only one capable of raising Mado out of her coma. She lets herself into the flat again to play old Italian songs, mementos of a holiday spent together, decades ago. Slowly, but clearly, Mado starts to respond. In contrast, the increasing amount of drugs that various doctors are pumping into only serve to dull the few senses she has left.
Gradually, Mado’s daughter starts to get a sense of what sort of relationship her mother had with her old friend. She looks through dozens of Mado’s old photo albums, and a familiar face keeps popping up. She is appalled, and whisks her mother away, putting her into a home while changing the locks of the flat so that Nina can’t come in.
The film finds its way to an ending which is neither melodramatic nor mawkish, while not shying away from the fact that Nina and Mado’s best years are behind them. It does not try to imagine an endless life of activity in front of them, but watches them come to terms with living out their lives in love and dignity. Although I am no friend of happy ends, we finish on a satisfying note in which the virtuous are rewarded.
Special praise for Barbara Sukowa as the indomitable Nina. An old woman in a young man’s world, a German living in France, the Evil Woman who replaced Mado’s husband, she is an outsider who needs reserves of strength to cope with the disdain of those around her. She finds this in spades, and dares us to find her weaknesses. The last third of the film is told almost entirely from her perspective and we support her every inch of the way.
Having said all this, Wir Beide doesn’t offer many surprizes and we roughly know where it is heading from quite early on, but the bold choice of subjects helps excuse most of that. With a film industry obsessed about showing us the escapades of young, straight males, the simple fact that this film acknowledges the existence of older lesbians earns it a massive gold star.
As the first wave of COVID-19 dies down, we’ve been offered a strange set of films. For a start, the release dates for all the Blockbusters have been postponed, which doesn’t just mean that we’re spared a horde of indistinguishable Fighty-Fighty-Bangy films, but also that half the available cinemas are not tied down showing the same tired film.
On top of that, the last few months would have usually been used to leak out the films which die the arthouse festival circuit, so – possibly for one year only – films like Wir Beide has been launched on a “normal” audience. I really can’t remember a time when I’ve seen a bigger proportion of films worth seeing than the past 5 weeks. More of this sort of thing.