Directed by: Matti Geschonneck
Screenplay by: Wolfgang Kohlhaase (based on the novel by Eugen Ruge)
Produced by: Oliver Berben, Sarah Kirkegaard, Dieter Salzmann
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Alexander Fehling, Sylvester Groth, Pit Bukowski, Evgenia Dodina, Stephan Grossmann.
Based on the semi-autobiographical 2011 novel of the same name by Eugen Ruge, and screening as part of the 2018 German Film Festival, In Times of Fading Light concerns several generations of an East German Communist family gathering to celebrate the 90th birthday of Wilhelm Powileit (Bruno Ganz), a staunch supporter of the Communist Party who is also about to receive a medal in recognition of a lifetime of service to the Party.
The action takes place over one day in 1989 in East Berlin, not long before officials opened the Berlin Wall for the first time in 28 years (its demolition officially began on 13 June 1990 and finished in 1992). In addition to family and friends, there are also some Communist Party officials present, but they quickly leave once rumours start to reach them of people defecting to the West (but whether the officials are joining the stampede or trying to stop it isn’t clear).
My knowledge of the sudden building and eventual destruction of the Berlin Wall is sketchy at best, nor was it particularly enhanced by the way this film unfolds, given its setting mainly within a family home and with the focus on an old man’s stubborn adherence to a political ideology that is being threatened by change.
The ensemble cast is composed of a number of apparently distinguished European stage and film actors, but not being familiar with any of them, and not understanding German, I relied on the subtitles to help navigate my way through the murky political and historical waters. This tended to distance me from becoming too engaged with the characters and their interactions, but there was enough significant information gradually revealed to keep me from losing interest.
The film benefitted from good production design and was effectively photographed to capture Eastern Germany in the late 1980s, with the home kitted out in what would have been the typical furnishings of the time, and with everyone appropriately costumed in keeping with their frugal lifestyles.
A drawback for me was that the film tended to be rather stage-bound, particularly in the earlier scenes, as if lifted from a Chekov play with people trapped within a defined space and uttering their lines with a sense of revealing lots of ‘Important Things’. As the day progressed, this stage-like aspect lessened, or perhaps it was because the audience became caught up more in the unfolding drama and relationships of the various relatives and friends whose convivial smiles started to freeze and crack as secrets and long-buried grievances seeped to the surface.
Bruno Ganz as the focus of the celebratory gathering was aged effectively with make-up, and was convincing as a firm believer in a political ideal who struggled to maintain his faith as others around him surrendered to the inevitable passing of a particular time in Germany’s history. The old wooden table loaded with celebratory food and the patina of many earlier gatherings represented a set of values and its eventual fate served as a metaphor for inescapable change and how not everyone can accept that change even when faced with incontrovertible proof.
If you enjoy period drama in a foreign language, with characters in no particular hurry to reveal their secrets, you may find this offering to your liking.