Director: Max Fey (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
Felix is having problems at school. Again. He’s being aggressive to the other kids, and the school and some parents have called Felix’s mother Eva in to moan at her. Felix is autistic and is having problems mixing with the others. Maybe he shouldn’t hit them quite so often. The school is doing its best to look liberal and conciliatory and brings in a helper, Elena, to accompany Felix to school. Elena barely looks older than Felix. She does her best but this is not enough to fulfil Felix’s needs.
There is a small caveat here. We see everything through Eva’s eyes, so maybe Elena is much more capable, the schools much better resourced, and Felix’s psychologist much more sympathetic than we see on screen. Well, maybe, but you’d doubt it. In the end, the school has an interest in Felix being sent to a special school where he’s no longer a burden on their resources. Asking Felix what he’d like to do really doesn’t help them balance their budget.
The professional help just do not have the time and resources to substitute for the care that only Eva is able to provide – sitting with Felix, endlessly staring at washing machines, patiently telling him that no, a smile is not a sign of sadness but of joy. The psychologist may be able to offer some interesting analyses about why Felix is why he is, but she’s unable to make any concrete suggestions of how things might be better.
There has been a number of recent films about people having difficulties looking after ill relatives later. Most have the same message: illness does not recognise class, and it’s just as hard for everyone affected. Zwischen Uns exposes the lie of this narrative. Firstly there’s the sheer difficulty that working class people have finding the time to look after their loved ones. Eva loses her job at the supermarket because they can’t deal with her being perpetually called in to deal with Felix.
Added to this, Eva does not have a large house with a garden, where Felix can sit around and play. When he has problems at school, it is not the sort of school which has plenty of staff on hand to relieve the teachers. All they have is Elena. And Elena can’t even stop Felix running off. The prime reason for Eva’s inability to cope is not that she’s a single mother, but that she’s a single working mother who cannot give up her badly-paid job, as it’s her only source of income.
Eva is afforded some help from her neighbour Pelle, a fishmonger, with whom Felix shares a love of fish. Well, sort of, and you’ve got to make those bonds where you can. Pelle looks like he might be the person who can bring single mother Eva out of her desperation, but than Felix skips school – again – and hides in Pelle’s van, which doesn’t do any of them any favours.
Things comes to a head when Felix gets overexcited, causing him to attack Eva, and draw blood from her head. She feels that she has to lock him into his room while she goes to hospital. They tell her that she must stay overnight as she’s still groggy with drugs. She refuses, but the old way of doing things is no longer possible, and Felix is institutionalised.
A number of reviews have compared Zwischen Uns negatively to Systemsprenger, another German film from a couple of years ago. First, Systemsprenger is one of the greatest films in recent years. Of course any film is going to be poorer by comparison. Secondly, as one of the reviews which starts by making this comparisons eventually concedes, most similarities between the two films are entirely superficial. Yes, they are both about “problem children” but quite different kids.
Zwischen Uns is much less about Felix’s autism than about Eva’s inability to cope with looking after a child who she clearly loves. Eva tootles around town on her moped, trying to deal with her problems. She is clearly a sympathetic character, but part of this is her obvious inability to cope. Sometimes cinematic problems like this are presented as if all you need is a prince charming to appear and whisk you away to a better life. This is not a film which harbours such illusions.
It is a strong point that Zwischen Uns does not have a happy end which brings Eva out of her day-to-day reality. Things with Felix might improve a little, but only within the parameters of possibility. It is certainly not the case that Felix suddenly stops becoming autistic or that his behaviour becomes less difficult. At best, Eva is a little better able to cope with the chaos.
Zwischen Uns is neither a plea for locking up ill people, nor a pretence that parents, and especially single parents, can cope without support. It is more a State of the Nation report that shows that the way things work at the moment doesn’t really work at all. It shows deep sympathy for Eva, for Felix, and even for the people who let them down, because they are not able to contribute any more. It’s no Systemspringer, but it’s certainly good enough.