“To Life” in Its Tattered Glory
By Skip Sheffield
No matter what is dealt you, life is worth living.
That is the upbeat message of “To Life” (L’Chaim), winner of the Best German Film at the festival Filmball Vienna 2015.
“To Life” translates into German as “Auf das Leben,” but it means the same in any language.
Since this is a German film (with English subtitles), the spectre of Nazism is never far away. The heroine of the story, Ruth (Hannelore Elsner) was born in Poland, where the Nazis rounded up Jews in 1939 to take them off to concentration (death) camps. Ruth was just a child. Her mother, who knew they were doomed, pushed Ruth from the truck, and she was forced to fend for herself from then on.
A talented natural singer and musician, Ruth became a cabaret star, even as Germans were making life unbearable for Jews.
“To Life” begins in early 1970s Berlin. Jonas (Max Riemelt) has fled his wife and home. With no particular plan, he goes to Berlin and takes a temporary job as a mover. His first assignment is moving the worldly possessions of Ruth, who is being evicted from her apartment of 35 years. Jonas immediately senses a kindred spirit in Ruth, who is old enough to be his mother. Felling pity, he offers to take Ruth to her new government subsidized quarters across town. Ruth asks him to deliver a mandolin she has made, and pays him 250 Euros up front. Jonas tries to refuse the money, but Ruth is insistent. The next day he returns to her apartment to give back the money. There is no response at the door. Jonas knocks harder and harder and finally breaks down the door. He discovers Ruth in her bathtub with the water tinged with red. She has slashed her wrists in an apparent suicide attempt. Jonas attempts CPR and rushes Ruth to an emergency room. She isn’t particularly grateful Jonas has saved her life, calling herself a “suicide granny.” Nevertheless in this parable of life by director Uwe Janson, a friendship is forged. Ruth slowly lets Jonas into her past. her beloved Yiddish songs, and the young man who abandoned her who looked just like Jonas.
“To Life” is a love story without sex and a suicide tale without violence. It is a reminder that true friendships span generations and political and religious beliefs.