Berlinale 2024 review: Ivo (Eva Trobisch)

“Heartfelt and sometimes deeply unsettling in how it presents the bleak reality for many terminal patients.”

Some say that the worst aspect of dying is not the actual process, but rather the people you leave behind. Unfortunately, even after our lives have ended there are usually friends, family and colleagues that stay behind, mourning our loss and celebrating our lives if we are lucky. There are people, however, that are often excluded from this conversation, despite some of them knowing the deceased better than most, particularly in their final moments. The doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who dedicate their lives to helping others are not always given the credit they are due, and are often considered to be invisible mourners in instances where their patients don’t survive. This is the foundation for Ivo, in which Eva Trobisch (in her sophomore directorial effort) tells the story of the titular character, a nurse who works in palliative care, spending her days moving between the homes of patients that are suffering from terminal illnesses. Her responsibilities are not easy – she isn’t tasked with saving their lives, but rather making whatever life they have left comfortable, helping them ease into their eventual death. She becomes a companion and a friend to many of these people and begins to forge a strong connection with the patients, which ultimately starts to take a toll on her own life. A beautiful but haunting social drama that covers some challenging subjects in a forthright and honest manner, Ivo is not an easy film, but one that touches on a number of vital issues that are worth discussing.

Trobisch had a very clear idea of what she wanted to achieve with this film, at least thematically. After love, there hasn’t been any subject that has been more thoroughly explored in every arena, from philosophy to science to art, than death. However, the detail that seems to have fascinated her is not the actual moment in which someone dies, or the aftermath, but rather that ambiguous space just before they pass away, the months, weeks or even mere days before they succumb to illness or injuries. For many who have experienced a loved one going through a terminal illness this will sadly be very resonant. It’s a painful process, looking through the eyes of someone who is not directly related to any of these people, but rather hired to treat them and make their transition more comfortable, as well as doing the things that many family members refuse to do for personal reasons. The film takes a slightly stream-of-consciousness approach to the subject, following Ivo as she visits various patients, with the anchor being one patient in particular. This middle-aged woman suffering from a debilitating disease decides that she wants to die, and asks her dutiful nurse to help end her life, which stirs even more conflict in our protagonist. Told in a series of moments, punctuated by quiet sequences in which we see Ivo question her understanding of the world, the film opens up the floor to discussion in a way that doesn’t add too much credence to the meandering moralist argument, but instead focuses on the more deeply human aspects of the conversation.

Ivo is an exceptionally complex and harrowing film, and considering it was designed primarily to be an intimate character study, whoever portrayed the titular protagonist needed to be adequately prepared for some of its more intense moments. The task fell to Minna Wündrich, who delivers an incredibly beautiful and poetic performance that perfectly encapsulates everything that this film represents. The role is quite complex since Ivo is a protagonist who mainly functions as a vessel through which the director explores the subject of palliative care and end-of-life treatment, but who needs to be more than just an audience surrogate. Instead, she needs to be fully developed without the story becoming solely about her journey, but rather how her professional commitments combine with her personal life. They influence one another and give her an even deeper understanding of not only her profession but her reasons for staying in a job that is clearly impacting her on a psychological and emotional level.  Wündrich is a revelation in the film – she adheres to the very subtle, steady tone of the film, and even in moments where we could understand overplaying a particular scene for dramatic impact she chooses to remain subdued, finding the innermost humanity in this complex but deeply resonant character.

Any film that deals with the subject of death as its main premise is immediately going to be polarizing, especially when evoking subjects like assisted suicide, which remains a contentious issue. Ivo is a film more than willing to embrace those challenges, since it is entirely aware that what it intends to do is not to persuade any viewer to change their beliefs or shift their perspective, but rather to provide an empathetic and honest depiction of a part of life that is experienced by many people, but rarely seen on screen due to its very personal nature. The combination of compassion and narrative simplicity are the reasons Ivo manages to so effectively explore these themes without becoming overly focused on preaching or persuading viewers to a particular line of thought. Instead, we find it taking the time to develop on its ideas in a natural, authentic way and leaving the morality entirely up to the viewer, who is welcome to interpret the actions and aftermath of these characters on their own. Heartfelt and sometimes deeply unsettling in how it presents the bleak reality for many terminal patients, Ivo tells a very important story, paying tribute to those people who spend their time helping others on their journey to death, doing so not for recognition or praise, but rather as a result of their unimpeachable empathy, a quality that informs and guides every moment of this heart-wrenching but moving social drama.