Director: Wendla Nölle (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
An elderly couple in bed. As they hug, she tells him that he’s a day away from being officially old. This is the day that Erik will retire from his job at the University. It is Erik’s wife, Juditha, though, who looks old. Juditha suffers from multiple sclerosis, and is gradually losing control of her bodily faculties. She has started to use a makeshift wheelchair and uses a mechanical grabber to access high shelves. On a car trip of Erik, she orders him to stop immediately as she needs to take a piss.
Erik, on the other hand, is a great bear of a man – tall, full of vitality, and not quite ready to give up yet. One of his first steps on entering retirement is to enrol in a course on renewable energy. He employs a woman to clean the house and look after his wife, something that Juditha resents from the start. When she says she can look after herself she’s fooling no-one, but you’d have thought that she could have expected more attention from her husband.
Erik is unable to cope with Juditha’s rapidly deteriorating condition. He buys her a luxury wheelchair, which isn’t really what she wants or needs. He later has a panic attack which the doctor warns him could lead to heart attacks. What makes it worse is that he has this attack upstairs from Juditha. She sits in her wheelchair, unable to climb the stairs and find out what is happening.
Erik speaks with his German wife in a thick accent, and talks to his daughter Sarah in Swedish. He is originally from Malmö, where Sarah still lives. Malmö offers him a more attractive environment than ossifying at home with his ill wife. His daughter is newly pregnant and has enough difficulty coping with her own problems to offer too much help to her ailing parents. Rather than facing up to his problems and responsibilities, Erik flees.
This is a film that is obviously only going in one direction. Erik and Juditha clearly love each other, and Erik does his best, but to be honest his best isn’t all that. Gradually, inevitably, Juditha is sent to a nursing home, where she is institutionalised and deprived of any of the warmth that we experience in the earlier scenes with her husband. Much that we see is of its nature repetitive and boring, but necessary to convey the day-to-day reality of Erik and Juditha’s lives.
I have some personal skin in this gain. It is not so long since my mother contracted pre-senile dementia, which gradually caused her to lose her mental capabilities. The biggest fears of my father were that he would die before her. It wasn’t just that she was incapable of looking after herself. She was also unwilling to accept any sort of help from people who she didn’t fully trust (and my mother trusted just about nobody).
I think that my father behaved better under these conditions than Erik, but the conditions are painfully familiar. How does one support someone who regards any offer of support as being patronising and demeaning? How does one rage against the dying of the light while accepting that the relative lack of luminosity means that it really is harder to see things clearly? Juditha fights for her self-respect at the same time as realising that she is losing control.
In the reviews of the film, Erik is respectfully described as being “overwhelmed” by his experienced. Well, I guess that he is, but this seems to be a bit of a cop out to me. To be sure, Erik is a decent man who cares about his wife. But he seems to care for himself a little more. When he made the vow “for better, for worse”, he was more able to cope with the first half of that deal.
Ein großes Versprechen is not an easy watch, but if you want to enjoy yourself, what are you doing going to the cinema? There are no superheroes here popping up out of the woodwork to prevent the inevitable. If this film has any message, it’s “we are all going to die and it’s not going to be pleasant”. If you’re planning a date movie, you may want to avoid this one.
It’s a shame that this film comes so quickly after Gaspar Noé’s much more ambitious and successful Vortex, and not too long after Michael Hanecke’s similarly themed Love. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Ein großes Versprechen, but equally it never comes close to the poignancy of either of the other films. It is fine as far as it goes, but it is tentatively making its way through territory which has already been visited with much more confidence and panache.
This is a film which addresses serious issues, and is to be applauded for this. At the same time, it is reluctant to offer any way out. You can treat this as brutal honesty or bland cynicism, that’s your call. I’m not sure whether Ein großes Versprechen tells us anything about the world that we don’t already know, but it does keep us aware of life’s brutal realities.