Four Minutes

"Extraordinary"

Four Minutes Review


A woman prisoner in a German penitentiary awakens on her cot to find her cellmate hanging in space, dead. There's a flicker of concern but no real sign of shock or alarm in Jenny von Loeben's (Hannah Herzsprung) next moves. What she does says a lot about a hardcore convict's values -- she reaches into the pocket of the corpse to grab the dead woman's cigarettes. Cold.

At the same time, grey-haired, elderly Traude Kruger (Monica Bleibtreu) is having her piano brought to the prison in order to continue offering lessons for any guard or convict who wants to sign up for her class -- as she's done for 30 years. A brief jailhouse negotiation with Direktor Meyerbeer (Stefan Kurt), the warden, makes the point that her lessons may be a thing of the past if they don't attract more inmates or guards as students.

While playing the chapel organ during a service for the prison population, Traude notices one inmate fingering an imaginary keyboard to the music... correctly! The imagining player has a head-full of wild, black hair, and pent-up musical starvation. We recognize her from the cell-suicide scene. From what we know of Jenny so far, we might think this acting out to be a sign of rebellion. But we'd be at least partly wrong. You know what they say about first impressions.

Traude asks Kowalski (Richy Muller), a prison guard and a Traude-student with an agenda, to bring Jenny for a chat about piano lessons. It becomes a jailhouse negotiation that ends with Traude imposing a strict set of rules on the brazen inmate and, in return, Jenny getting sprung from solitary confinement.

Traude is ready and waiting when prison officer Mutze (Sven Pippig) brings Jenny for her first lesson, presenting her in handcuffs -- behind her back. When appeals to him to remove the restraints are denied, to the point of exasperation, Jenny plays a dynamic piano riff backwards. Impossible. Words are exchanged, Mutze sets her off, and she beats the daylights out of him.

Traude's reaction is at least as angry as the one by the prison officials. She lays down the law that the "negro" music Jenny came up with is never to be played on her piano again. But, angry though she may be, Traude knows what she has here: an interpretive and compositional genius corked up in a traumatized individual, a prodigy at 10 who can still let it loose at will.

The prison board begins to understand the dual nature of the problem inmate they've got locked up under their roof. Hearing more practice sessions enforces their realization that Jenny goes through a transformation when she's sitting at the keyboard and that she just might be the accomplished pianist Traude thinks she is. That makes it easier for Traude to convince Meyerbeer that continuing Jenny's lessons, despite her infractions, could result in winning a contest for "Musical Youth," and that such an accomplishment could bring glory to his reputation and to the prison's. Traude doesn't need to add what such a win could mean to her personally, as a meritorious conclusion to her life as a teacher.

Meyerbeer approves, but nothing comes easy. Out of hostility and deranged prison politics, a nighttime attack aimed at burning Jenny's hand is barely thwarted by Jenny's swift counterattack on her inmate enemy. Yet, despite the dangers and diversions, she wins the regional contest and we get to see the lovely Jenny in an evening gown, arousing us to her sensuality. She goes on to win the second round which gives her a go at the finals to be held in the grand Berlin Opera House. By this time, her story has come to the attention of the press, which opens a whole new branch of pain when the brutal details of Jenny's conviction are revealed, when her despised father shows up, and when the Traude-Jenny relationship looks like it's over.

Chris Kraus' film about a self-destructive musical genius is, as he puts it, an "intervention" for the sake of art. Marring his effort slightly are its length plus some themes and details that are suggested and not fully explored or explained. But this lively integration of film and music is enough of an achievement to look past a few flaws.

In her feature film debut, Herzsprung makes her role an experience with an unyielding, quixotic and dangerous personality that contradicts expectations and leads to adoration. Her performance is tempestuous and bravura, calling for exhaustive physical abandon. To an extent, it compares to Hilary Swank's turn in the boxing ring for Million Dollar Baby. Herzsprung, with half a year of intensive piano coaching and three months of boxing training, made the part a memorable attention-getter.

As for the meaning of the title, that comes in the finale and, if you've got a musical bone in your body, you'll appreciate how it involves Annette Focks' original piece of classical new music in the tradition of John Cage, taking his work for prepared piano into the realm of performance art. It's a genuine tour de force of inventive expression with the instrument, not to mention how the unique presentation will send some of us out of the theatre with our passions stimulated.

Aka Vier Minuten.

Actually 112 minutes.



Four Minutes

Facts and Figures

In Theaters: Thursday 6th October 2005

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5

IMDB: 6.9 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Chris Kraus

Producer: Alexandra Kordes, Meike Kordes

Starring: Dwayne Boyd as Omar, Jason Sylvain as Terrence, Gregory Alan Williams as Carl, Dawn Michele as Kali

Also starring:

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