Berlinale 2023 review: When Will It Be Again Like It Never Was Before (Sonja Heiss)

When Will It Be Again Like It Never Was Before is a truly exceptional achievement, and further proof that Heiss is amongst our most essential and exciting contemporary artistic voices.”

It seems that at some point in everyone’s life, they tend to ask the question whether madness can be inherited. We all seem to be born into families that don’t appear quite as normal as those around us, or at least this is what Joachim Meyerhoff implied in his semi-autobiographical novel, in which he discussed his years growing up as the son of the director of a psychiatric institution, his entire childhood surrounded by those that we consider the definition of abnormal. His fascinating account has been translated to film in the form of When Will It Be Again Like It Never Was Before (Wann wird es endlich wieder so, wie es nie war), in which director Sonja Heiss sets out to adapt his beautiful and hilariously irreverent account of his formative years. The resulting film is a wonderful, intricately woven tapestry of the life of a young man navigating challenges that seem to be unique to his family, not realizing that some of the obstacles he faces are certainly felt by others, a fact he only comes to realize as he grows older. Spanning from the carefree days of his childhood to his early adult years, the film is a decades-long existential odyssey, delivered in the form of a bitingly funny satire, in which Meyerhoff’s words are used to propel this insightful and charming analysis of the life of an unconventional protagonist who sets out on his own journey of self-discovery, but encounters far more along the way, each new encounter adding nuance to his already varied experiences.

From its first hauntingly beautiful (but also hilariously charming) moments, we can immediately tell that When Will It Be Again Like It Never Was Before is not particularly interested in playing by the rules. It starts as a series of moments in the life of the main character, who initially views the world through the innocent eyes of a child who hasn’t been confronted with some of life’s bleak realities, but these are certainly inevitable enough to find their way into the film as it progresses. Much like the novel, Heiss’s film intends to create a coming-of-age story that is unconventional, but not to the point where its nonadherence to reality eclipses the more sensitive and delicate moments, which are just as important as the off-the-wall, outrageously funny scenarios that are peppered throughout the narrative. It is set in a world where everything is slightly off-centre and inconsistent, yet somehow it all functions, even if it constantly feels like we are standing alongside these characters on the bleeding edge of sanity, which is where many films have found their strongest inspiration, this one being no exception. Heiss is tasked with assembling a film that not only gives us fascinating insights into the main character as he grows up, but also his skills in navigating the absurdities of everyday life, something that many can likely relate to, even if our own upbringing wasn’t quite as outrageous as the one we see reflected in the character of Josse.

Many of the more intriguing components of When Will It Be Again Like It Never Was Before come not only in the various experiences that the protagonist has over the course of his formative years, but also in the manner in which they unfold. Much of his story is told through the perspective of his family, who are essentially the emotional and psychological anchor for the main character, with his entire identity being formed from either seeking his family’s approval and feeling a sense of belonging, or in the inevitable period of rebellion later on in his life, where he aims to be as different from them as possible. Josse, who is the surrogate for the author, has his story told through his interactions with various members of his family, and the entire film orbits around these interpersonal moments, whether with his loving mother or his patrician father (portrayed brilliantly by Laura Tonke and Devid Striesow, respectively), who may have different parental approaches, but are united in their undying belief in giving their son the best life possible. Ultimately, we learn the same lesson as Josse – no family is entirely conventional, despite how it may look from an outsider’s perspective. They all have their inherent eccentricities and flaws, which constantly brings up a very simple question: what does “normal” actually mean, in the context of a family? These realizations come to Josse gradually, and credit must be given to the three actors who play him at various stages of his life (Camille Loup Moltzen, Arsseni Bultmann and Merlin Rose) for their work in creating this fascinating character and inviting us to accompany him on the journey to explore his upbringing, as told through a few chapters in the life of his peculiar but loving family.

Heiss did face quite a challenge in tackling Meyerhoff’s novel, especially in translating the more subtle details from the page to the screen. Coming-of-age stories normally have a profound impact since the written word gives us more intimate access to the minds of these characters, reflecting their internal world in a way that is sometimes difficult to visually represent. The director’s efforts do bear substantial results, as When Will It Be Again Like It Never Was Before is a beautiful and provocative film about growing up and finding yourself, which evokes a remarkable sense of nostalgia. Through all the madness and eccentricity incited throughout the film, there is a clear thesis statement – life is filled with joys and sorrows, all of which are inevitable. However, our responsibility is to find the balance between the moments of celebration and lamentation, which can sometimes overlap with one another, creating a life defined by the continuous ebb and flow of emotions. This film captures these feelings superbly – it is both melancholic and deeply funny, and the balance of humour and tenderness makes it a compelling film, one that finds humour in every situation, but is also not afraid to have serious conversations. Eccentric without being excessive, and beautifully poetic in how it approaches its material, When Will It Be Again Like It Never Was Before is a truly exceptional achievement, and further proof that Heiss is amongst our most essential and exciting contemporary artistic voices.

(c) Image copyright: Komplizen Film GmbH / Warner Bros. Entertainment GmbH / Frédéric Batier