The excellent German film Four Minutes (written and directed by Chris Kraus, following his acclaimed 2002 debut Shattered Glass) focuses on the intense relationship between an elderly piano teacher in a women's prison and a violent young prisoner who becomes her musical discovery.
Traude Kruger (played by Monica Bleibtreu, who has won several Best Actress awards internationally for her haunting performance) has taught at the prison for over sixty years, since her traumatic stint as a field nurse for the Nazis came to an end with World War II. Consumed by guilt over the execution of her then-lover, another woman, Traude has retreated to a life of loneliness in a repressive setting. She considers her work a form of penance, but has yet to feel redemption.
That begins to change, however, when Jenny von Loeben (an electrifying turn by Hannah Herzsprung in her film debut) is sentenced to the prison. Convicted of murdering her boyfriend, Jenny is initially vicious, remorseless and deemed incapable of rehabilitation. When Traude catches Jenny playing along to the organ during a church service and subsequently learns she was a child prodigy at the age of ten, Traude decides to take Jenny under her wing.
Molding Jenny into an adult performer proves to be no easy task, with Jenny's demons, prison bureaucrats and Traude's own prejudices providing considerable interference. But the women's efforts lead them to a once-in-a-lifetime, competitive shot at musical greatness and the climactic "four minutes" of the film's title.
Kraus was inspired to write the character of Traude based on his childhood memories of the woman who ran the boarding school he attended. In the production notes, he beautifully credits her with opening up to him "the world of art". Kraus writes, "I have always been fascinated by the wildness, the power and also that inexplicable element that is at the core of all artistic endeavors ... in Four Minutes, I wanted to show how such an intervention could happen." The result is a powerful testament to the human spirit, rising above darkness and soaring into greatness.
Four Minutes opens this Friday in Los Angeles and New York.
UPDATE: Four Minutes is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.