“Living well,” they say, “is the best revenge.” But what would you call living on — outlasting your enemies and loved ones, all your peers, outliving everything except for your memories?
“Frau Stern” is about to turn 90. She has the love and attentions of her daughter, and the adoration and affection of not only her granddaughter, but her granddaughter’s peers — the local bartender, a young hairdresser who comes by for a trim and to check on her, most of them one third her age.
She’s socially active, a tireless smoker and in extraordinary health, her doctor assures her. But Ms. Stern, played by the late Israeli actress Ahuva Sommerfeld in her only screen appearance, has had enough. A Berliner and a Holocaust survivor, she’s ready to go.
“I want to die,” she tells her doctor (in German, sometimes Hebrew, with English subtitles).
“You should stop smoking,” he chortles.
“If you’re not going to help me, I’ll do it myself.“
He won’t. Whatever the ethics, he knows the optics, what the headlines will look like — “German Doctor Kills Holocaust Survivor.”
So Frau Stern starts on her single-minded quest, finding a way to stop living on her own terms, to stop remembering because “I remember everything.“
As she starts in on the daughter (Nirit Sommerfeld, her real life daughter) and then the granddaughter (Kara Schröder), widening her search for a means to an end to other means and other sources of “help,” “Frau Stern” slyly shifts from being about suicide to about what makes life worth living.
She is inspired and somewhat encouraged by a chat show she checks into, pretentious conversations moderated by the host (Robert Frupp) of “Glory Moment,” a show about ordinary Germans telling the more extraordinary stories of their lives.
Frau Stern has stayed in Berlin despite what “The Germans” did to her and her family. Her granddaughter is dating “The German,” and from all her talk along this line we start to figure she stuck around out of spite, to have the last word.
And now, those who persecuted or stood idly by while crimes against humanity were carried out, have died.
Writer-director Anatol Schuster fills in what looks like a full life. The widow has her “usual” at the bar, her usual bartender to remember it and deliver it, her regular smokes she picks up at the smoke shop, even a favorite convenience market she shoplifts from — just for excitement. Pushy new, young neighbors seem to have sketchy intentions. That’s a fresh challenge.
As she’s asking around about a gun, she has lots of people to consult, modifying her request after answering “What do you need a gun for?” a tad too bluntly. Now, she says “It’s getting dangerous around here.”
That’s the humor in this very dry and somewhat limited character study, the lady’s unflappable resolve and hard-won native cunning.
Schuster doesn’t take us on a long journey, or even the one we think he’s guiding us into when it begins. A brief film like this can endure only so many interludes, and he tries a couple that don’t push the story forward or illuminate characters in any important way.
But Schuster wrote “Frau Stern” specifically for Sommerfeld, and we can see what he saw in her in just a scene or two. She’s a spitfire, a fighter, not a complainer. And as we identify with her, we can either root for her quest, or hope she finds a reason to abandon it. But Sommerfeld ensures that we respect it, even if Frau Stern’s doctor, friends and descendants do not.
MPA Rating: unrated, adult subject matter, profanity, drinking and smoking
Cast: Ahuva Sommerfeld, Kara Schröder, Nirit Sommerfeld, Murat Seven and Robert Schupp
Credits: Scripted and directed by Anatol Schuster. A Film Movement release on Film Movement+.
Running time: 1:22