Director: Laura Lehmus (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
An unusually deserted Berlin-Brandenburg airport. A bright pink rucksack is knocking all the metal executive cases off the baggage carousel from Helsinki. Good. A blonde woman picks up the rucksack, puts it on her back, and gets onto the moving walkway. She reaches an airport bar where a man in a pilot’s uniform is knocking back champagne from the posh glasses. Felix is a bit sad because his fiancée Natalie has decided to up sticks and move to Boston. Without him.
Frida is 40 and regularly phones her father for chats in Finnish, even though he died a while back. Shortly after their encounter in the bar, Frida and Felix are lovingly walking hand in hand through the woods. This you gross misgivings about the way the film is going. We see a visualisation of Frida’s anticipation of a long, and – to any objective observer – deeply boring future with Felix. Fortunately, the scene rewinds and we are returned to brutal reality.
Frida is a kindergarten teacher who gets maybe a little too involved with her charges. When she notices that one boy always arrives hungry, she pays an unwelcome house visit to his mother, who is not too keen with her intervention. But Frida is not a typical interfering middle class do gooder. For a start, unlike many film characters, she lives in the same sort of modest flat that real people have – about 70m2, but with infuriatingly loud building works outside at regular intervals.
On one of these intervals, Frida rushes out dressed just in a towel, to ask them to keep the noise down a bit. As the front door slams shut, she realises that she’s missing her keys. Frida enlists the help of Yolanda, the neighbour’s kid, who uses her mobile drone to retrieve Frida’s keys. Frida and Yolanda form a bond – although Frida is an eternal optimist and Yolanda full of teenage angst, they neither seem to be quite in tune with how the world would like them to be.
Yolanda is 15, and a nascent engineer. She has constructed an elaborate set of bolts on her bedroom door made up of Barbie dolls. Yolanda is looking forward to a year off in a school in Canada, although her controlling mother tells her there is no way that she’ll be allowed to go. Maybe this is why she walks around with a permanently sullen scowl, and wears a woollen hat of the type once favoured by Evan Dando.
A couple of months into her relationship with Felix, Frida is worried that when she rings him at work, they tell her he’s not in today. Suspecting an affair, she recruits Yolanda and her drone to spy on Felix. This is when she learns that Natalie is back in town, and that Felix is keen on carrying the relationship from where they left off. Maybe this is not the time to tell him that Frida is pregnant.
What started looking like a bland romcom with no dramatic tension gains increasing depth. More and more jeopardy piles on to Frida’s precarious existence. After a mother complains when Frida vomits her house, Frida’s pregnancy is outed. She is told that she can’t work in the kindergarten, and shouldn’t bother coming back after the birth. The benefits agency puts her on the lowest possible social security and tells her she’ll have to find an even smaller and louder place to live.
Frida has already been posting ultrasound scans on Natalie’s facebook page, Now decides to up the ante. She breaks into Felix’s flat and smashes all his stuff. One thing leads to another and she ends up putting glue in Natalie’s shampoo. Later, she takes a reluctant Yolanda to track Felix and Natalie down on one of their loving walks and dive bomb them with the drone. Each time she’s mean to Natalie, she’s almost immediately remorseful, but it doesn’t stop her from repeat offending.
Sweet Disaster is not afraid to take whimsical diversions which show that we should not believe everything we view. Whether magical realist cartoon excursions, a Greek chorus of card playing old ladies, or the school bus that plays old Baywatch episodes to the kids inside, the film is not short of quirk. If handled slightly wrongly, it would be utterly infuriating. There are so many ways in which Sweet Disaster could have got it very wrong. It is amazing that it doesn’t-
If Frida were too nice she would be just annoying, but if she were too much of an oddball her character wouldn’t ring true. She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl waiting to happen. Maybe it’s because of the female director, but Frida’s inability to cope with life is never used to make her seem more attractive to the male gaze. We don’t view Frida’s problems to help some men feel protective of her. They’re there to show us that life is, indeed, problematic, especially for working class women.
And, ultimately, who can resist a film which contains a guest appearance by David Hasselhoff (as himself, who else?) Since appearing in a load of naff 80s tv programmes and single handedly bringing down the Berlin wall, Hasselhoff has developed a sense of self-awareness so great that his mere presence shows that a film is aware of its own ridiculous. Sweet Disaster is deeply tragic. It does cover serious issues affecting older pregnant women. But above all, it’s a heap of fun.
Second viewing – August 2022
Watching Sweet Disaster again, it was clearer what the point was of some of the incidental scenes. First time round some of them felt a little too frivolous (even when they were funny). For someone of little brain like me it wasn’t always easy to follow what was going on. A number of fantasy sequences disturb the film’s chronology, as Frida dreams of what her life – and in particular motherhood – could be like. These contrast neatly with the general chaos of Frida’s everyday life.
These fantasy scenes show that the life which Frida really has is much more complicated than the one of her dreams. This makes her somehow a more sympathetic, more flawed, character – less an interfering busybody than someone who is genuinely trying to make the world a better place, even if she’s not very good at it. Her eagerness to please sometimes makes her judge other mothers a little too quickly, but her awareness of her own shortcomings shows that she is never mean.
Frida is always trying to help. On one level, she’s always prepared – Felix notes that she always has a Roggenbrot in her bag, which is useful for making sturdy sandwiches. But she still hasn’t come to terms with adulting. In her relationship with Yolanda, the teenage girl who asks when life is going to start, traditional roles are reversed. Yolanda is the sensible one who tries to hold Frida back from carrying out childish revenge fantasies against her ex and his new/old partner.
Frida tries to convince Yolanda’s mother that Yolanda is mature enough to do a year’s course in Canada. While this is true, you’re less sure that Frida would be able to look after herself in a strange country. She’s barely holding it together where she is.
The star of the show is Lena Urzendowsky as Yolanda. Already superb in Cocoon, Urzendowsky once more plays a character who is too introverted, too self-conscious to be cool. Yolanda spends one party staring out of the window, waiting impatiently for Frida to pick her up and wondering why the boy she fancies doesn’t pay any interest in her. She says she’ll never go to a party again. The irony is that Yolanda is way cooler than anyone else at the party.
Yolanda is resourceful, and is capable of rapidly changing her facial impression from a look of deep embarrassment at what he mother is saying now, to a Grunge stare of hopelessness, to genuine excitement that someone like Frida has actually noticed her. You doubt that she’d ever make someone a good wife as she’s bound to be more interesting than her future husbands and most husbands don’t like that much. She’s probably best off playing cards with the coven of old women.
Sweet Disaster is a love film, which, happily, spends very little time with the boring love stuff. It prefers to spend more time on people desperately trying to cope than with couples blankly staring into each others’ eyes. It is a film about real life, the life that most of us have rather than what some films want to show us. And yet it is not totally without a sense of romance. There is a sign right at the end that Frida is about to go through the whole charade one more time.
I saw this film for a second time by mistake – I’d forgotten the title, and the bland description on the cinema website doesn’t do justice to the subtle fun that’s really here. I considered moving to a different screen to watch something new, but I’m really glad I stayed. In fact I think I enjoyed it even more second time round.
There are definite parallels with Cleo – another German film from a couple of years ago about a girl who’s smarter than the adults around her which keeps breaking into fantasy sequences. As far as I know, Cleo also largely sunk without trace, but if anyone fancies putting it on a double bill with Sweet Disaster, I’d be the first in the queue for tickets.