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ANDREAS KLEINERT: DEAR THOMAS/LIEBER THOMAS (2021) - BERLIN AND BEYOND, SAN FRANCISCO MAR. 11-16, 2022

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ALBRECHT SCHUCH IN LIEBER THOMAS

Tumultuous biopic of an East Berlin writer who rose in the Cold War may be for his admirers only

The "Thomas" here is a real person, Thomas Brasch (popular German actor Albrecht Schuch), a Jewish British-born East Berlin poet and director (1945-2001). His work and personality, as shown here, were too much for the Soviet era German communists, though he never fully renounced his loyalty to the GDR. This despite its having imprisoned him - apparently at the behest of his own father (Jörg Schüttauf), a party official - for pamphleteering in 1968 to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In rich black and white, Dear Thomas, whose title announces it will be a love letter, is a narrative effusion of a biopic that regularly introduces Brasch's dreams without warning and revels in his relentless bad-boy behavior.

To judge by the German Wikipedia entry for him (the English one is woefully scanty), many significant details of the man's life, and especially his literary career, are missing in this movie, which doesn't try for completeness. Given the impressionistic, spotty storytelling, how many facts are left out, the 150-minute run-time seems excessive, though the action is continually enlivened by Schuch's committed and spirited portrayal of the lead. The early segments are wearying. If you stick with it things pick up in the latter part, especially when Brasch finally moves for a while to the West and spends an interesting, creatively rewarding period in New York City.

It's been commented that the many women around Thomas are, in the film, not much more than decorative furnishings, despite being played by well-known actresses. When his father denounces him to the Stasi, his girlfriend is Sanda (Ioana Jacob). When he gets permission to leave for the West, it's Katarina (Jella Haase). There's the sequence of a young woman who comes to Thomas for help after she's been jailed after denouncing her father for abusing her sister, made memorable by the shocking dream he has which, like the others, is woven in so seamlessly the unalert, uninformed viewer might think it's real. Director Andreas Kleinert seems to revel in these dreams and they are the fun parts while the strictly biopic scenes sometimes feel more dutiful.

Sometimes on the other hand the staging of real events is somewhat unconvincing, such as the imprisonment, which seems like a not-so-bad dream anyway: Thomas is sentenced to two years and some months but released after barely more than two months. His father, who has plenty of political clout, apparently has had second thoughts and gets his son out of jail before it has seemed real to us. On parole he is assigned to work - all good material for his writing, everyone thinks - "as a milling cutter at the Berlin transformer factory 'K. Liebknecht'" (German Wikipedia). For the messy-looking mill scenes it looks like all the actors have rubbed dirt on their faces to make it look authentic, which has the opposite effect.

After a while Thomas goes through a cocaine period, snorting up masses of white powder and sometimes looking quite gaga. Even his cigarette smoking is used to convey a sense of the man's wild, macho self-destructiveness. When he lights his best friend's cigarette by their putting the two ends together and puffing, it's almost sexual. Schuch often jumps up on things, chairs, tables, to show Thomas' impulsiveness, his rather threatening enthusiasm. And yet though he's seen tapping away energetically on a series of manual typewriters, and admirers gather round to hear him read, we're always hearing of non-publication or play cancellations. And so when in the West he seems an instant celebrity ("he is acclaimed and his books become bestsellers," in the film blurb) it's hard to see how that happens because the film has had a hard time showing how he's become known.

Thomas is devastated when his artistically promising younger brother Klaus (Joel Basman) dies (at 30, of a pill-and-alcohol cocktail, though the film omits the details), but in the elision of scenarios his wife brings him a letter showing his first film has gotten funding just when he's gotten the news of Klaus' death and is standing on the roof thinking of jumping off. Next thing we know his metaphorical crime drama Angels in Iron is being shown at Cannes and his father, never out of the picture, is there telling him it's "very impressive" but says "Where is your novel? Did you skip it?" The breathtaking fluidity of these sequences is admirable.

As an example of Thomas Brasch's way with words the film - which early on tellingly shows him writing his prose-poetry, neatly, all over a woman's naked body - cites the following lines, which are used as chapter headings along the way:
"What I have I don't want to lose, but
where I am, I don't want to stay, but
I don't want to leave the ones I love, but
the ones I know I don't want to see any more but
where I live I don't want to die, but
where I die I don't want to go:
I want to stay where I have never been."
These paradoxes may sound facile, at least in English, but they make nice headings for the film's seven chapters. For the last chapter, when Brasch is 56, the age at which he dies, he is played by an older actor, Peter Kremer. (As an 11-year-old sent to military school, he's played by Claudio Magno.) For the final moments, the wracked-with-coughs but still vigorous and smiling Thomas steps permanently into a dream. This whole final passage is nicely done,, flowing into the credits with baroque music and the sound of trumpets. This is a movie that seems to have found itself only when it's about to end.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's even longer study of a German artist who went westward and became famous, Never Look Away/Ohne Titel, tells a story that riffs more freely off its biographical basis and in a more focused ad more emotionally engaging way. Though his admirers may love it, and it has numerous moments of tumultuous fun, I did not enjoy Dear Thomas as much and can't really recommend it.

Dear Thomas/Lieber Thomas, 15o mins., debuted as an Official Selection at Munich July 2, 2021 and won Best Film plus an acting award for Albrecht Shuch at Tallinn Black Nights Nov. 23. Screened for this review as part of San Francisco's Mar. 11-16, 2022 Berlin and Beyond festival.

DATES & TIMES
Castro Theatre
March 12, 2022
6:00 pm
Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas
March 15, 2022
8:15 pm

David Katz published a review of this film in cineuropa that's clear-eyed both about the film ("it’s impressive work in itself making Jean Seberg and Jules and Jim references seem quite this uncool") and its subject ("there’s a poignancy in his flailing attempts to actually resemble the great littérateur he clearly fancies himself as").
Another rare English-language review is by Amber Wilkinson for Eye for Film.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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