Berlinale 2024 review: Dying (Matthias Glasner)

“The latest from German director Matthias Glasner is a three-hour cross-section of the dysfunctions besetting a society uncertain about both its larger purpose and — more humbly — its prospects for happiness.”

The contemporary state of European cinema in general, and German films in particular, can be divided into two main genre factions: arthouse fare, often clinical and almost always critical of its own bourgeois underpinnings; and mainstream kitsch, which by and large makes no pretensions about said underpinnings. The former wins awards, and maybe even Hollywood recognition, the latter rakes in steady sales. Such a dichotomy is obviously a myopic one, failing to account for the differences even within bourgeois cinematic types. Michael Haneke, for instance, is scathing in a way Assayas hasn’t been for a long, long time. But it speaks to two diverging yet interrelated ways of seeing the contemporary world we live in, either as symptom of an ill-defined neo-liberal malaise, or as escapism from humdrum political reality.

Or both; no cure without a cause, no antidote without its poison, and the synthesis of both informs the unwieldy and darkly humorous Dying. The latest from German director Matthias Glasner is a three-hour cross-section of the dysfunctions besetting a society uncertain about both its larger purpose and — more humbly — its prospects for happiness. It is irreverent in a way that makes light of (while shedding light on) the comfortable but unfulfilled lives of the middle- and old-aged; brutally self-reflexive to the extent that it doesn’t shy away from the campier elements that constitute much of our tragic and comic selves. Spread across five chapters, Dying hones in on the personal vicissitudes of an estranged family of four, charting the converging storylines of its members in very different predicaments who nonetheless find themselves tied to the same existential question: when does one stop living, and start dying?

The aptly named Lunies family are a combination of the geriatric and the melancholic: seniors Lissy (Corinna Harfouch) and Gerd (Hans-Uwe Bauer) struggle to control their bowel movements and increase their daily physical ones, while son Tom (Lars Eidinger) wrestles with conducting a musical piece — also called “Dying” — and daughter Ellen (Lilith Stangenberg) drinks herself into and out of an affair with her married boss. Dying, however, deigns not to pathologise these struggles as merely chronic articulations of the same bloody thing. Instead, throughout its interlocking sequences and set pieces, the film lays bare the presumptions each character has of the others, examining how the persistent currents of solipsism have stymied communication in lived and cinematic traditions alike; how communication alone, in spite of its deadening futility, may be the only way forward.

The use of the present continuous may illuminate this existential realisation, for it is not the act or state of death which Glasner interrogates with such acerbic pathos, but rather the prolonged and arguably more violent process of leaving behind one’s freedom and dreams. Lissy and Gerd contend foremost with this process, it is true. When he is not shitting himself wildly, he has forgotten all about it; and when she comes to the rescue — on her own, and then with hired help — she also reminisces bitterly on the possible reasons for her children’s estrangement. But Tom, whose figure anchors the film closest to the unbearable weight of a middle-age crisis, has the most to lose in the charade of individual and social propriety. He’s a conductor frequently getting sidelined by Bernard (Robert Gwisdek), the composer of “Dying,” and a major depressive whose only solace — until it isn’t — is the piece he has entrusted to a student orchestra for its premiere. Tom is a cuck for his ex-girlfriend, Liv (Anna Bederke), acting as willing paternal surrogate for a baby who is not his but also enmeshed in a bizarre co-parenting scheme with the child’s biological father. And, most striking of all, he is a cold one: Eidinger’s piercing gaze, directed not towards musical realisation but inwards and into Tom’s familial history, is a frosty window into many a modern soul.

Guided by artistic impulse and the need to achieve and ‘make it’, these souls often miss the mark, settle for substitutes, and falter when these substitutes can’t quite deliver the meaning they seek. Running counter to these futile pursuits of higher meaning are those who seek (or seek to emulate) a hedonist lifestyle: Ellen, perhaps jealous and disdainful of her brother’s career and acclaim, takes up the position of dental assistant (an occupation “most hated“), delivering irresponsible wisecracks with Sebastian (Ronald Zehrfeld) whilst extracting teeth from their unfortunate clients. Stangenberg, radiant in her character’s approximation of a hot mess, recalls the vivid aestheticisations of illness and desolation in the works and muses of R.W. Fassbinder, a wearily sultry look permanently etched on her face. Both siblings, despite their drastically dissimilar stations in life, are united by a profound dissatisfaction with it.

Comparisons to other German tours de force might be the impulse with Dying, in particular Dominik Graf’s recent Fabian: Going to the Dogs and Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, both historical imaginings of the Weimar Republic’s psycho-sexual impulses. But Dying aspires to no such lofty peak, and this proves to be one of its strengths. For the film has little recourse to retrospection, being set in the present day which doubles as a kind of eternal present. Deaths occur, as it is with life, but dying sets in early on, despite the frenetic movements and hectic schedules on display. A central, twenty-minute conversation between Tom and Lissy, taking place at the latter’s dining table, clarifies this phenomenon, but it comes too little, too late. It is bitter, unnerving, hugely awkward; Lissy is dying, physically speaking, but what she wants to address is her lack of affection for her son. And yet, the clarity their conversation produces might be the closest one may come to a balm or a state of grace. Likewise, with the music under Bernard’s pen and Tom’s baton, portentous transcendence and phoney vulgarity result in equal measure. Dying suggests, perhaps, that such is the way we can and should treat the mortality we are each accorded; in clamouring for an inexpressible freedom, one must both accept the limitations involved and aspire nonetheless to push past them.

Image copyright: Jakub Bejnarowicz / Port au Prince, Schwarzweiss, Senator