Kindred love and a fraying marriage embrace in a sturdy drama that shuttles back and forth between Switzerland and Berlin.
Co-directed and co-written by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymon, much of what follows about My Little Sister (German: Schwesterlein) is necessarily plot-heavy, for one thing because there’s a great deal of it, but also because it is through that plot that the film compels attention. Its title immediately implies a sibling bond, and the siblings in question are playwright Lisa (Nina Hoss) and actor Sven (Lars Eidinger). They’re actually twins, though Sven—fighting a losing battle against late-stage leukaemia—always refers to Lisa as his “schwesterlein” (little sister) for having been born minutes after him.
Having completed a course of chemotherapy, Sven returns to the theatre, where a rehearsal for a production of Hamlet is being conducted. As it turns out, Sven has played the titular role in hundreds of such productions, and knows the entirety by heart. Thus a first tension is established, that between Sven’s deep willingness to play the role and theatre director David’s doubts about whether he is fit enough to handle the physical rigours of a full theatrical run. Sven gets sicker and sicker, but his goal of performing keeps him going. David however sees the writing on the wall and decides to pull the plug, sending Sven spiralling out of control.
The narrative centre in the middle third shifts to Lisa’s marriage with Martin (Jens Albinus), a headmaster at a prestigious private school in the Swiss Alps. He reveals he has been offered a position to stay on at the school for another 5 years, a decision which would explicitly break a promise he made with Lisa to move back to Berlin. Credit to Jens Albinus here, his passive-aggressive asides and condescending attitude rapidly establish Martin as a bastard whose emotional indifference to his wife can only lead to conflict.
This turn from fraternity to matrimony, coupled with a romantic-period soundtrack, make My Little Sister highly reminiscent of Sean Durkin’s The Nest, another bourgeois-inclined drama that tracks the collapse of a marriage. Where that fell down upon the iciness of its characters and its environment though, this is humanised by the heartbeat of a sister’s love for her dying brother. Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger each convey the depth of this bond with intimate, dignified performances.
Though our sympathies are planted firmly on Lisa’s side amidst her stoic bearing of turmoil, she isn’t blameless either. As demonstrative of a three-dimensional script, she too has a major blind spot which—in the eyes of everyone who knows her—she is too stubborn to acknowledge. Her denial of the gravity of Sven’s illness leads her to blame the theatre director firstly for cancelling Hamlet, and secondly for refusing to run “Children’s Games”, her newly written Hansel and Gretel-based monologue for Sven.
Yet for all this acuity, in the main directors Chaut and Reymon’s efficient but visually ungratifying approach had kept me from fully committing to their carefully written and acted drama, and it took an especially bleak final act to win me over. Despairing of Martin, Lisa jets back to Berlin with Sven and the kids in tow without consenting with him, who as a counter attempts to kidnap them under her nose and take them back to Switzerland—the grimmest minutes of a film that also features a story about terminal leukaemia. Martin does come to his senses at the last minute, though in the short term it does little to mollify the image of Lisa’s emotional devastation.
Overwhelmed, she slips into a kind of reverie, and wakes to find a silent little girl sculpting in a sandpit. It’s here that the film’s directing duo inject cinematic craft for the first time by making the merest hint that this day-into-night experience could be unreal. When a deathbed-bound Sven summons her back inside, they read her “Children’s Games” manuscript together, which she goes on to spend all night completing. Having finished the next morning, she cranes her neck to bask in morning daylight, with this simple, affecting symbolism cementing the moment of bittersweet closure My Little Sister was always leading us to.
With such a gruelling choice of subject—strained relationships, life roles, and most forbiddingly, living with cancer—My Little Sister could easily have been gruelling to watch. Instead, through Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymon’s robust script, and the poised performances of its leads, it handles its heavy burden with ease and finds poignance in life’s adversity.
Words by Alex Crisp
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