One of the enduring peculiarities about the so-called Berlin School of contemporary German filmmaking is that, among the various filmmakers who have been associated with the group, the work they produce exhibits great stylistic variety. What seems to unite them, apart from a few biographical particularities (i.e., Christian Petzold and Angela Schanelec both spending time at Berlin’s dffb film school), is an intellectual orientation toward filmmaking, an attitude toward structure and representation that nevertheless yields vastly divergent results. For instance, Christophe Hochhäusler and Nicolas Wackerbarth have both been involved in the foundational film magazine Revolver, a publication that displays a specific orientation toward both German and international art cinema—a throughline that runs between the historical materialism of Harun Farocki and Romuald Karmakur and the somewhat more abstract lyricism of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But a comparison of Hochhäusler and Wackerbarth’s films reveals radically different formal approaches.
A Voluntary Year, the recent film collaboration between directors Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler, provides a unique case study in this aspect of Berlin School filmmaking. This is the first film co-directed by the two men, both of whom studied together at the Hamburg State Academy of Higher Artistic and Scientific Education in the nineties. (Also in their cohort was the experimental filmmaker Nina Könnemann.) While the film shows certain affinities with some of their earlier work—Köhler’s Bungalow (2002) in particular, and Winckler’s Class Trip (2002), to a somewhat lesser extent—the final result is more like a crucible for two contrasting sensibilities. While it is admittedly a simplification of the two men’s complex approaches, Köhler’s films, especially later work such as Sleeping Sickness (2011) and In My Room (2018), tend to be governed by large concepts; Winckler’s two features to date, Class Trip and Lucy (2006), are organized according to an exploratory realist technique that might be compared with the work of Mike Leigh. As Marco Abel writes in his article on Winckler in Senses of Cinema, Winckler himself finds his films quite different than Köhler’s, or for that matter those of Maren Ade, with whom he as also collaborated.
Made for German television, A Voluntary Year is a brisk, compact film that could be considered a comedy of manners, although it has a sting in the tail, so to speak. It is centered on the relationship between a suburban doctor (Sebastian Rudolph) and his daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke), who has recently graduated from high school. She is about to depart for a volunteer year in Costa Rica, something that her father obviously thought would be better for her than hanging around their sleepy little town. The film covers the day of Jette’s departure and the subsequent morning, but things do not go as planned.
I discussed A Voluntary Year with Köhler, who explained that he and Winckler “both asked ourselves how to be good parents without overreaching and forcing our ideas onto our children.” One can see that the father character, Urs, is something of a control freak, as well as (in the current parlance) a “mansplainer.” He panics about getting Jette to the airport on time, but at the same time insists on stopping off at his brother’s place to retrieve Jette’s camera. “She” will want it, he says, but it’s obvious that he is the one who wants her to have it. When Jette’s uncle Falk (Stefan Stern) doesn’t answer the phone or the doorbell, Urs breaks down his door. Because you see, Falk has a history of drug abuse, so Urs takes it upon himself to “rescue” his ne’er-do-well brother who, it turns out, wasn’t even at home.
The break-in creates a delay that necessitates having Jette’s erstwhile boyfriend Marco (Thomas Schubert) drive her to the airport, and it is this sudden decision that gives Jette the small opening she has been looking for, perhaps all her life. She intentionally misses her flight, defies her father, and goes AWOL. Marco doesn’t want her to leave, of course, but he hadn’t bargained for becoming an accessory to... whatever it is Jette is doing in defiance of Urs. “The film is also about a girl that avoids conflict and tries to make everyone happy,” Köhler said, “which often creates even bigger problems.” She wants to rebel, but can only do so in a passive-aggressive way, provoking a conflict between Urs and Marco when really it is she who is trying to strike a blow against controlling men in general.
Whereas recent Köhler films have fairly large-scale, bifurcated structures, and Winckler’s features are somewhat ambling and freeform in their approach to time, A Voluntary Year reflects a combination that neither could have achieved independently. The new film is a road movie of sorts, although it stalls out midway through, getting stuck in a park and then reluctantly wending its way back home. “The script had a very long evolution,” says Köhler, “from an epic movie with a time frame of 15 years to a film that tells about two decisive days in the relationship of a father and a daughter. But the main idea was always that we would [use] the Volkswagen Bus as a ‘relay vehicle.’” Urs’ vehicle goes from transporting Jette exactly where he wants her to go, to getting diverted onto her own uncertain path.
The film also allows for smaller, interstitial interactions that show us more about the two main characters, in particular Urs’ stormy relationship with his married girlfriend and his snappish interactions with his patients. Ultimately, the father / daughter showdown is about a father’s dissatisfaction with his own life, and how that manifests as over-direction of his offspring. Urs feels he is somehow better than this sleepy town outside Hessen; Jette likes her life and feels no imperative to leave. Stylistically, A Voluntary Year is fast-paced and even frantic at times, but once Jette establishes distance from her dad, things slow down, as if that were her aim all along.
In discussing the collaboration with Winckler, Köhler describes a certain pragmatism, and a desire to find a new way of working after some arduous projects. “I had a rough experience shooting Sleeping Sickness and felt that sharing the weight of decision making could be an interesting experiment. Shooting can be a very uncreative process, where most of your energy goes into avoiding mistakes. The hope was that being able to take a step back would enhance creativity. In my opinion this worked out, even if the process wasn’t without conflict.”
It may be tempting to think about A Voluntary Year as a contribution to the expanding canon of Berlin School films—something we are certainly not obliged to do, as the film stands exceptionally well on its own. Nevertheless, the story of home vs. away, or striking out into the larger world, prompts a consideration of these filmmakers’ relationship to broader cinematic trends. Köhler’s cinema has developed into a form of out-sized worldmaking, something he admits is rather difficult to manage. Meanwhile, Winckler’s films have been more intimate affairs. And so, with A Voluntary Year, these two old friends from Hamburg have collaborated to produce a film that speaks to conflicting desires: whether to go out and try to conquer the globe, or stay closer to home and explore what is closest to you.
Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler's A Voluntary Year plays at Locarno in Los Angeles, running February 13 - 16, 2020.