Truly intelligent spy movies are in short supply these days. What with the end of the Cold War, it isn’t as if the current global political climate lends itself to the kinds of motion pictures exploring such subject matter in the previous few decades, and studios seem to have tried to crack the nut that is ‘the War on Terror’ in a decidedly different (say ‘unAmerican’) perspective whenever they get the chance. But for audiences hungry for those days when politically-based thrillers were far more about the individuals caught up secretly in the deeds and misdeeds of national governments, quality flicks are indeed in short supply … which is why I suspect they’ll be chomping at the big to sink their teeth into TWO LIVES. This is the kind of human spy drama Hollywood used to make – the 70’s were full of them – and it’s a welcome return (albeit a bit slow at times) to character drama in the world of spies.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
I’ll dispense with the usual tactic of culling the film synopsis from the product packaging (it’s far too involved for my tastes), and I’ll instead try to hit on a few salient points. TWO LIVES chiefly investigates the story of Katrine Evensen (played by a radiant Juliane Kohler), a “war child” whose mother was a Norwegian woman who engaged in an affair with an occupying Nazi soldier during World War II. (History records that the fate of many of these children – they’re referred to as part of a Lebensborn Program, an SS-sponsored attempt to raise the birthrate of Aryan children in order to perpetuate Nazi beliefs – has been subject to much speculation.) Once the Berlin Wall falls in 1990, random attempts were made to reunite these children with their birth mothers, and this film tells the fictional (but history-inspired) story of Katrine’s escape in years prior to that fall with a twist of espionage.
Unfortunately, TWO LIVES is the kind of film one cannot speak about at great lengths without spoiling much of the plot. The gist of what happens is that a lawyer trying to expose the Norwegian government’s complicity with those nefarious Germans wants Katrine to testify at a hearing of global importance but for her to do so much uncover gaps in her story which point to questions of her true identity. As more and more secrets are revealed, it becomes clear that far more has been kept in the dark; and disclosure of the truth might put more than just one live in great jeopardy.
Co-directed and co-written by George Maas and Judith Kaufmann (though Maas appears to get sole notice in the film’s credits), TWO LIVES is not as tautly told as one might like; in fact, precisely where and when what takes place in its expansive story was never quite perfectly plotted out to my preferences. The film employs a few visual techniques – flashbacks are rendered stylistically in what looks like Super 8MM film – but as these events unfold across a timeline of perhaps twenty to thirty years they grow increasingly nebulous as the plot wears on. Mind you: this doesn’t mean that the audience can’t figure it out; rather, it’s just that the story employs a kind of forced theatricality in order for it to spool the way it does here. So long as you don’t mind the obvious manipulation (the storytellers are trying to preserve their trump card until the end, you know), then you can probably roll with the changes and make the best of it.
What’s exceptional are most of the players. Every one of them inhabits these characters with a contemporary earthiness – some only want to live out their lives oblivious to the facts, while others are only trying to expose society’s flaws with no intentions of breaking up families – and this gives TWO LIVES its necessary emotional foundation.
TWO LIVES (2012) is produced by a host of partners, including Zinnober Film- und Fernsehproduktion, B&T Film, Helgeland Film, and more (for a complete list, check out IMDB.com). DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by MPI Media Group. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a German/Norwegian spoken language release – there is a significant portion of the film delivered in English toward the end – with English-subtitles available. (There is no English-dubbed track.) As for the technical specifications? This is a smartly produced film, and it bears some terrific quality sights and sounds consistently. Lastly – if it’s special features you want – then all you have to look forward to is the theatrical trailer.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Though the film’s pacing and narrative leaves a bit to be desired, TWO LIVES is the kind of smart and intelligent spy story that doesn’t come to the silver screen all that often any more. While some of the character moments feel a bit contrived, that’s an easy blemish to overlook due to the otherwise captivating richness of these relationships in conflict slowly being pushed from the darkness and into the light by a few unspeakable acts of espionage and violence.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group provided me with a DVD copy of TWO LIVES by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.