“Pinske displays a sharp insight into her characters and is aided by a central performance that is controlled to perfection.”
Conversations are about power. Even the meaningless ones. Even the ones not had. Who is in the conversation is as important as what is said, because there is always a social structure that people adhere to, whether they do it unconsciously or in full knowledge of where the balance lies. Who you are, where you are from, what your social standing is, this all matters in how you are approached even in the most mundane situations. But what if you float between social classes? Such is the predicament of Clara, the protagonist of Annika Pinske’s outstanding observation of social mores and human connection Talking About the Weather, in which Pinske displays a sharp insight into her characters (Pinske also wrote the screenplay) and is aided by a central performance that is controlled to perfection.
Clara (Anne Schäfer) is a philosophy teacher in Berlin who is finishing her doctorate. She has come a long way from her youth in East Germany and is trying to find her place as an independent woman in the capital’s educated middle class. Between the affair she is having with one of her students (Max, played by Marcel Kohler), the friendship with her acerbic thesis advisor Margot (Judith Hofmann, who provides a splatter of laugh-out-loud moments for those attuned to her character’s sarcasm), and a strained relationship with her flatmate Faraz (Alireza Bayram), life in her new milieu leaves very little time for her family back in the East. When she and her 15-year-old daughter Emma (Emma Frieda Brüggler) go to visit her mother Inge (Anne-Kathrin Gummich) over a weekend, Clara, never quite sure of herself in Berlin, feels a distance between herself and the life she left behind in pursuit of educational advancement. So what is her place in the world, and what are the relationships worth fighting for?
Clara is a bundle of insecurities because of her East German background. In the opening scene Max makes a funny quip about it, as she sneaks a bottle of shampoo from the hotel room that is the location of their tryst. But when her parents later come up in conversation during a party, her inferiority complex takes over and the lies come fast. You can take the ‘Ossi’ out of East Germany, but Clara can’t shake her origins. Yet when she goes back home those same origins seem to have shaken her, making her feel even more out of place than in Berlin. Everybody is proud of her, the smart girl that got away, but nobody is really interested in what she does, including her mother. Trying to have a meaningful conversation with Inge proves impossible. But that same feeling of inadequacy that plagues Clara towards her own social circle is mirrored by her mother’s insecurity towards her own daughter, a painful realization for Clara.
Talking About the Weather brings to mind Maren Ade’s masterful Toni Erdmann, another German film about a woman trying to balance her professional ambitions with her family baggage (Sandra Hüller even makes a brief appearance). While the circumstances are different, both films underline the difficulties for a woman to find true self-determination because of her own expectations but also those of the people around her. Women have to navigate conversations that often border on banality but are loaded with subtext, especially if you fall between milieus as Clara does. Pinske’s razor-sharp screenplay lays this bare in its central character, whose complexity and contradictory nature is rare in a female protagonist. She is not exactly likable, but invites empathy. The relationship with her mother is just as complex, not exactly hovering between love and hate but somewhere between non-communication and understanding. Anne Schäfer gives this year’s first great female performance, mixing to perfection Clara’s insecurity and fragility with her strong will and her need for connection (here, again, Toni Erdmann and Sandra Hüller’s magnificent performance in that film come to mind). Supplemented by a large supporting cast that excel in their own small but important parts, Schäfer nails the character. Pinske’s direction is equally strong, often relying on image more than text to set the tone and guide the viewer. Establishing shots tell you all you need to know about social class and inter-personal relationships, without having to rely on expository dialogue. This means that Pinske can pack a lot into Talking About the Weather‘s short runtime in terms of character development even for the supporting cast. For instance, a lingering shot of Margot smoking on her balcony, alone, in mere seconds all but defines the character, a testament to both the director’s understanding of the character and of her craft. Talking About the Weather is a delightful tragicomedy about what it means to be a self-determined woman trying to climb the social ladder, and the cost at which this comes, and is the first great find of this Berlinale.