IFFR 2023: Wir sind dann wohl die Angehörigen (Hans-Christian Schmid)

“All this combined with a magnificent central female performance makes this film about the banalities of life in stressful situations engaging no matter how conventional it is.”

Films about abductions often focus on the perpetrators and the victims, and the next of kin are relegated to supporting roles. Veteran director Hans-Christian Schmid, associated with the Berlin School, a group of loosely aligned German filmmakers, takes a different approach in his latest film Wir sind dann wohl die Angehörigen (I Guess We’re the Relatives Then). In a way he is forced to do so, as the film is an adaptation of the novel of the same title, written by Johann Scheerer about his own experience as a relative in a widely publicized abduction case in Germany in the late ’90s. Focusing on the ordeal he and his mother had to go through during the weeks while his father was abducted, Wir sind dann wohl die Angehörigen is by nature of the story a fairly conventional film, but directed with such a sure hand (experience shows here) that knowing how the film will resolve doesn’t take away anything from the experience of reaching that ending. All this combined with a magnificent central female performance makes this film about the banalities of life in stressful situations engaging no matter how conventional it is.

In early 1996 multi-millionaire, scholar, author, and patron Jan Philipp Reemtsma (Philipp Hauß), the heir of a tobacco-imperium in which he had sold his inherited majority stake two decades prior, is abducted from his home in Hamburg. His wife Ann Kathrin (Adina Vetter) immediately involves the police, and two special forces members move in with her and her son Johann (Claude Heinrich), as do their attorney and friend of the family (Justus von Dohnányi) and Ann Kathrin’s brother (Hans Löw). And then the wait begins…

How do you handle a situation like this as a family, with a house filled with strangers who invade your private space, however necessary it is? How do you go through daily routines like having breakfast together, making small talk? In a way, life goes on and you have to form a team of sorts. But with a police force that should know what they’re doing but drops the ball on several occasions, and a group of relatives and friends that make mistakes under pressure, it doesn’t take long before tensions arise among everybody assembled.

Schmid spends most of the film’s time in exploring the interpersonal relationships between the main players, and far less on the mechanics of handling the abduction itself, like negotiations with the kidnappers or dropping of ransoms. The focal point is Johann and to a lesser extent his mother, and what the crisis means to them, to their relationship, and to the relationship with their father and husband. Schmid directs this with aplomb but devoid of big directorial flourishes, relying on his cast to pull in the viewer. The young Heinrich is a talent, but the true power comes from Vetter, whose face and posture register every emotion that her character goes through, and there are a lot of them. Volcanic, desperate, loving, frustrated, Vetter’s emotions run the gamut, all perfectly calibrated in the first of this year’s great performances. The rest of the supporting cast delivers solid work, von Dohnányi in particular. Schmid has the confidence to let his actors roll with the material, which makes Wir sind dann wohl die Angehörigen feel a bit pedestrian, but at the end of the day the film does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to put the audience in the position of a family under stress in an extraordinary situation. It succeeds in this goal through its sensitive filmmaking, and despite seeming unremarkable Wir sind dann wohl die Angehörigen is actually an engaging piece of classical cinema.