24 Weeks: A drama that gets right under the skin
by Birgit Heidsiek
- BERLIN 2016: The new film by German director Anne Zohra Berrached, unveiled in competition at Berlin, boasts some magnificent performances
Three years after German writer-director Anne Zohra Berrached presented her first feature film, Two Mothers [+see also:
film profile], in the Perspektive Deutsches Kino, she is back at the Berlinale, this time in competition, with 24 Weeks [+see also:
Q&A: Anne Zohra Berrached
film profile], which also deals with pregnancy – but in a very different way. While in her debut film, two women faced social and legal problems when they wanted to have a child as a lesbian couple, in 24 Weeks, a woman is put under social pressure to give birth to a disabled child. With intense close-ups, filmed partly as a documentary, the drama here feels real and gets right under the skin. A Chinese critic even said that this was the best German film he has seen in the last 12 years.
The story starts with the woman, a comedian, on stage, and she obviously sees no reason to hide in public the fact that she is pregnant. Her life seems perfect, with a loving husband, a little daughter and a house with a garden. But during her pregnancy examination, filmed in a doctor’s office, it emerges that the unborn child is suffering from Down syndrome. This is a huge shock, but the parents-to-be are fully confident that they will be able to handle it. They leave no doubt about it and get upset when the young babysitter, her little daughter and even the wife’s mother question their decision. Although they try to keep it all a private secret, the news somehow leaks out and goes public.
DoP Friede Clausz, who already worked with Anne Zohra Berrached on Two Mothers, reflects the different moods of the main characters through the film’s colour design, with the images infused with growing grey tones. The turning point is another examination that shows that the heart of the baby is beating very fast. Editor Denys Darahan allows the audience to experience the moment when the pregnant woman is waiting for the gynaecologist’s diagnosis in real time. And the results of the tests could not be much worse: the boy has a serious heart disease and needs to be operated on soon after his birth.
While thinking about the consequences for the child, her own life and her family, the expectant mother is no longer sure what would be the right thing to do. Meanwhile, the social pressure from outside mounts, almost crushing her. Fans as well as mothers of seriously ill newborns are congratulating her for being so strong, while she herself gets more and more insecure. The most difficult thing is her difference of opinion with her husband, who admits that an abortion would make him feel guilty. Guided by his religious beliefs, he pulls out all the stops to force his will to prevail – against his wife’s wishes and against the law that respects a woman’s decision. German comedian and actor Bjarne Mädel, who here plays his first dramatic role, is convincing, brimming with powerful anger.
With 24 Weeks, Anne Zohra Berrached makes a strong statement for women’s right to self-determination in a story about dealing with this deep moral dilemma. The delivery nurse in the film says that 90% of women have an abortion in cases like this, but always tell others that they had a miscarriage. She and the doctor are actually real-life professionals whom the director filmed in their clinic – perhaps this is why the movie looks so realistic. Leading German actress Julia Jentsch, who already won a Silver Bear for Sophie Scholl – The Final Days [+see also:
film profile] in 2005, puts on a tremendous performance, breaking through the pain barrier. In this respect, 24 Weeks could be a possible contender for the Berlinale Bears.