“A Handful of Water” is a feel good immigration tale that doesn’t quite the deliver the feels.
A choppy, untidy narrative, abrupt shifts in temperament and a vague grasp of right, wrong, morality and the law drag this slight, sentimental drama off course.
Jürgen Prochnow plays Konrad, a sad, solitary widower in a suburban semi-detached whose days are a drab routine of loneliness. He’s got a huge tropical fish tank and busybody neighbor and a car he longer drives. And every few days, his daughter (Anja Schiffel) checks in on him and nags him about this adoption ceremony that’s coming up.
She’s married a woman, and the 80something Konrad has had to get used to that. Now, she’s adopting her wife’s children from a previous marriage, so there’s another thing the old grump has to accept.
He’s not big on immigrants and “gypsies.” So, as is the way of such stories — “A Man Called Ove,” “A Man Called Otto” — let’s hurl some into his life.
We meet Thurba, her mother and two brothers just as German authorities are knocking at the door to deport them. Tweenage Thurba (Milena Pribak) bolts. When we hear a cop mutter “We can’t deport them” without all of the children in hand, we’re allowed to wonder if mother and child know that and are gaming the system.
When Thurba visits a couple of her countrymen involved in human trafficking for help and one asks why her mom didn’t “just break her arm” (in Arabic and German with English subtitles), that’s reinforced. You can appreciate and sympathize with the desperation of migrants fleeing violence (they’re from Yemen) and cringe at the ways tolerance and “official” compassion are twisted by those who would manipulate the rules as just another means to their end.
Thurba breaks into Konrad’s house, but the cops aren’t coming because someone stole some of his cookies. When she slips in again, he shoots her in the arm. And hen he tries to throw the shrieking child into the night, she passes out.
Konrad instantly softens. Thurba, freaking out when he locks her in, breaks out and takes longer to make a connection. But eventually she’s back, “helping with the fish” he tells his nosy neighbor. He gradually pieces together their story — her dad died, they were “imprisoned” in Bulgaria on their trek, and they’re just trying to get to the UK, where her uncle lives.
And there’s one more problematic element to this. This isn’t about a German coming to accept someone from another culture and empathize with their plight, welcoming them as neighbors. This is about a German resolving to help these Yemeni refugees reunite in Germany and aid their further travels so that they become Britain’s “problem.”
Konrad’s favorite saying is “Enemy is on the rise,” denoting how things are changing and never will be what they were (his explanation of the phrase). That metaphor is as slippery as the “handful of water” usage in this script. Something got lost in the translation.
The kid is unaffected and believable in the part. And it’s always great to see Prochnow as a leading man, over 40 years since “Das Boot” made him a star.
But “Handful of Water” just reminds us of how slippery the broad issue of human migration is, once you get past the emotional, compassionate points and into the ethics, moral obligations, rights and entitlements of it all.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Jürgen Prochnow, Milena Pribak, Anja Schiffel and Pegah Ferydoni.
Credits: Directed by Jakob Zapf, scripted by Ashu B.A., Marcus Seibert and Jakob Zapf. An IndiePix release.
Running time: 1:34