Fine performances are at the heart of this film from Swiss writer-directors Véronique Reymond and Stéphanie Chuat, which rather resembles a classy television drama that might, in British terrestrial terms, be spread over three successive Sundays.
Nina Hoss plays Lisa, an author and dramatist suffering from an emotional and professional block. Her life is on hold because her beloved twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger), a celebrated classical stage actor in Berlin, has cancer, though he is now in remission due to the bone marrow transplant which she has been able to give him. Lisa comes to the clinic to bring him back temporarily to the chaotic family apartment in the city where their widowed mother Kathy (Marthe Keller) lives. The film’s original title is Schwesterlein and when we first see Sven he is sitting on the hospital bed with his headphones on, listening to Brahms’s song: “Schwesterlein, Schwesterlein, wann gehn wir nach Haus?” (“Little sister, little sister, when are we going home?”)
Clearly, living in Berlin isn’t feasible for Sven at present. An understudy has temporarily taken his role of Hamlet in the current production which Sven made a success, so he agrees to stay with Lisa and her somewhat strait-laced husband Martin (played by the Danish actor Jens Albinus) and their two children at their home in the picture-perfect Swiss alpine village of Leysin on Lake Geneva, where Martin is the headteacher of a prestigious private school and Lisa teaches literature. But wild, passionate, bohemian Sven, in his comical fright-wig to conceal his baldness, hates the sterility of the surroundings. He is angry at being cut off from his artistic lifeblood and this upends Lisa’s already fraught marriage.
Easily the best scene in the film comes when Sven shows up at the theatre as a (not entirely welcome) surprise while the cast of Hamlet and the understudy are rehearsing, and he bursts on to the stage, unannounced, declaiming his lines. The cast are uneasy at Sven’s brilliance, his obvious anger at having the role taken away from him and his frailty – he could collapse at any time. He looks like what he is: a cancer patient. Famously, Eidinger played Hamlet on stage in Berlin and the few lines he delivers here are compelling.
The film shows us a relationship rarely represented in the movies: the brother-sister relationship. And maybe what Lisa has to confront over the course of the movie is that this is the most important relationship in her life: more important than her marriage, and complicated still further by the fact that she was once romantically involved with David (Thomas Ostermeier), the theatre director who now has the job of telling Sven that his temporary withdrawal from the cast is going to be permanent. In her anguish, Lisa begins a new work: a chamber piece inspired by Hansel and Gretel, the legendary siblings under threat, which she still believes Sven could perform. This will give Sven a reason to live, and revive Lisa’s own vocation.
Lisa and Sven’s closeness was perhaps always going to exclude everyone else, especially when Lisa’s bone marrow transplant wedded her to him in a uniquely, tragically intimate way. Perhaps ironically it means that the parallel plot about Lisa’s own discontent at living as the headmaster’s wife in antiseptic Switzerland is rather underpowered – and of course there is the fact that Eidinger tends to upstage everyone else on screen with him.
Has Lisa, at some unconscious level, come to welcome Sven’s illness as a way of freeing herself of her domestic dullness, especially when she conceives the idea of writing a new piece especially for him, to rescue them both? It’s a fierce, thoughtful drama.