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Wann wird es endlich wieder so, wie es nie war / When Will It Be Again Like It Never Was Before

Director: Sonja Heiss (Germany). Year of Release: 2023

Joachim lives near a psychiatric institution in Schleswig-Holstein, at the very North of Germany. He is not a patient, but his father is the professor of psychiatry, his mother a frustrated artist. Dad Richard operates an open house policy – he lets one of his underage charges pretend to drive him to work, and celebrates his birthday together with both family and patients. He has a very liberal view of psychiatry, and finds some of his neighbours much less “normal” than most of his patients.

We follow Joachim through three phases of his life, when he is played by three different actors. We first meet him as a long-haired young boy in the 1970s, bullied by his elder brothers. In an early scene we follow him to school, pausing only to occasionally lick a lamp post. On the way, he peeks into a garden, and sees the corpse of a neighbour, garden shears still in his hands. Joachim seems remarkably unphased by the incident, but uses his experience to get on up on his brothers-

The scenes in the 1980s have a bit of The Wedding Singer about them. Did you see the Wedding Singer? There’s no reason why you should have. I can’t even remember why I went, except maybe I was new in Germany, and didn’t want main brain to be taxed by much more than an Adam Sandler movie. Anyway a conceit of The Wedding Singer – the only conceit, really – is that it’s set in the 1980s, and absolutely everyone is dressed like Boy George or a New Romantic.

Something similar happens here, partly through its use of music. The film opens with The The and ends with T Rex, but the background music largely switches between a score by Dickon Hinchcliffe and electronic music which was only moderately successful then, but sounds a lot cooler than you remember. So alongside tracks like the Human League’s Being Boiled and OMD’s Enola Gay, there’s an extended scene of an early romantic experience singing along with a girl to Grauzone’s Eisbär.

This romance could have been the fulcrum of the film. An old childhood friend Marlene is deposited in the clinic by her parents. A tentative romance develops between her and Joachim, before she disappears. Joachim’s father later tells him that Marlene committed suicide while she was under his care. He did his best, but she wanted to die, so what can you do? This shows the callous coldness of Joachim’s father. Unfortunately, this coldness starts to infiltrate the film.

“Wann wird es…” contains a number of set piece scenes, such as one Christmas when we are in full Wedding Singer mode. After one of Joachim’s brothers takes a Polaroid photo of the other holding his new Walkman, it’s mum’s turn to unwrap her present to find she has… an electric carving knife. Dad’s sensitive side has triumphed yet again. Mum goes into to kitchen, ostensibly to try out her new present, but she runs amok, chopping up anything in sight.

It’s a shame that these individual scenes don’t add up to much. We find it hard to feel for most of Joachim’s irritating family, but even he does not have a very engaging personality. We watch him wondering around his huge house, looking slightly depressed about the lack of attention that he is getting, but he doesn’t come across as someone is so interesting that you’d willingly spend too much time with. Which doesn’t excise his parents’ indifference but gives us little reason to care,

There is a slight subplot based on the unhappiness of Joachim’s parents. Dad starts an affair, andhen Joachim finds out, he’s told “there are things that you do that don’t concern me, and there are things that I do that don’t concern you”. Meanwhile mum increasingly paints picture of the Italian landscapes which she used to enjoy. She spends time talking to old friends on the phone in Italian, while Joachim shouts at her and demands that she pay him some attention.

The scenes of a grown up Joachim, now with short hair, are largely superficial. Or maybe by the time they came, I had stopped paying too much attention. Mum is living in Italy now, and dad is dying of cancer. His patients are rallying around him, and continually asking why – as some of them always do. Richard seems hopeless, but maybe things will get better. Maybe they will return to the state that never existed before.

This is based on an autobiographical novel by Joachim Meyerhoff, so I’d guess quite a lot of this did happen. But like a number of recent literary adaptations, you can’t help feeling that film is not the best medium for this sort of meandering story. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m quite happy to read hundreds of pages of a novel where nothing really happens and we just follow the characters through their idiosyncratic lives. In a cinema, I get much more impatient much more quickly.

This may be one of those “it’s not you, it’s me” films, or maybe one which will be much more enjoyable if I go and see it in a different mood. There was nothing much here that I didn’t like, just little to which I felt any great emotional attachment. I got the feeling that it was trying to open an interesting dialogue with me about mental illness, and how it is treated (in both senses of the word), but somehow I didn’t feel able to adequately respond.

I like the idea of the film, but it somehow failed to really speak to me. Maybe it was the scenes on Richard’s personal motor boats, or the room with the huge aquarium-like wall. I just didn’t really feel that was a film made either for or about someone like me. This was a film that I wanted to like, but somehow it didn’t do it for me. I sincerely hope that it does it for you.

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