Lisa (Nina Hoss) is an author unable to write anything since her twin brother Sven, (Lad Eidinger) was diagnosed with cancer. She dreams of living the high life in Berlin, at least that’s what she seems to suggest, but she cannot, as while she suffers her writer’s block, she is also living in Switzerland where her husband works for a prestigious school. This is the simple premise of the best film I have seen so far in 2020. It’s called “My Little Sister” (Schwesterlein), Véronique Reymond and Stéphanie Chuat directed it, and it’s utterly devastating.
The film is about loss, or impending loss to be specific. Throughout Lisa lies on the precipice of losing so much and it hurts her deeply, but she always looks after her brother, desperate not to lose him most of all. Confronting would sum the film up best, not in the violent and graphic sense, more in the way everything is so real; it is a relatable film, and incredibly evocative as a result. You see, as her brother deteriorates, so does her marriage, and for all her courage and love, Lisa cannot fully grasp either.
Sven is an actor who, prior to his illness, was preparing to take to the stage as Hamlet, something he has done many times before. He is at home performing, and he desires nothing more than to keep bringing characters to life, but he is unable to when his director cancels the show. His arc involves this idea of loss as well. Loss of his work, his love, who is mentioned throughout, and his life.
Yet, unlike his sister, Sven hasn’t the strength to fight for anything and only seeks to perform as his final vice. Together their two lives form a tragic tale, one of dependency on the other and otherworldly commitment. Theirs is a very pure depiction of the sibling relationship, and thus the most heartbreaking aspect of the film as there’s the constant sensation one will soon be without the other.
The emotional clout of this film comes in many facets, but none are more significant or more impressive than the work of Hoss and Eidinger. As Lisa, Hoss is a vision of grief which rarely appears on-screen. She isn’t broken with sadness, nor is she guilty of repression; she’s just trying to fix everything she can and struggling to stay afloat in the process. As the cracks begin to show and her monumental efforts start to falter with both her husband, who wants to stay in Switzerland, and Sven who is only getting sicker, Hoss well and truly brings the waterworks and develops Lisa into the most empathetic of protagonists. After all, we’ve all lived through something we’d give anything to change.
Eidinger is just as good. Sven’s sick, but the fight isn’t inside him, it’s inside Lisa. As such Sven doesn’t wage any grand battle against cancer in what could be his final days, he doesn’t lie in a hospital bed and monologue about his fear of death, he does what’s real. He feels things, pain, sadness, love, compassion, happiness. He lives through his emotions and accepts the fact that’s all he can do. Edinger captures this in crushing fashion, and when the pair of them combine on-screen, be sure to have tissues on hand.
The directing duo of Reymond and Chuat work wonders in the composition of this film. I often criticize films with multiple dramatic elements which all culminate at the same moment. To the filmmakers of all those films I say, watch this movie. The broken marriage, a dying brother, an emotionally distant mother, the impact of the broken marriage on the children, and so much more are what Lisa has to deal with and yet it all works. Subtlety is key, as we explore one issue another plants its seeds for later, and when things begin to come to a boiling point, they flow through them satisfyingly like toppling dominos. This ultimately sees everything fit perfectly into a 99-minute runtime, and that’s brilliant.
With stirring performances and poignant direction, My Little Sister will break your heart in the way only a great film can.
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