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LOCARNO 2019 Competition

Review: A Voluntary Year

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- German directors Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler take on patriarchy as a father and daughter fight over travel plans

Review: A Voluntary Year
Sebastian Rudolph and Maj-Britt Klenke in A Voluntary Year

The tensions between a father and daughter reach boiling point in co-directors Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winckler’s freewheeling drama A Voluntary Year [+see also:
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film profile
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, playing in competition at the Locarno Film Festival. Aesthetically more in the style of the Dardenne brothers' oeuvre than Cédric Klapisch’s Spanish Apartment trilogy, the film focuses on a teenager’s desire to escape, which is more of a mental than a physical journey.

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Daddy issues come to the fore as impulsive doctor Urs (Sebastian Rudolph) struggles to understand that he might not know what is best for everyone. When Urs gets it into his head that something has happened to his brother, he breaks into his flat, taking command of the situation like he’s the love child of Free Solo’s Alex Honnold and Bruce Willis’ John McClane. And this is just a stop on the way to the airport in Hessen, West Germany, where he is taking his daughter Jette (Maj-Britt Klenke).

Jette is due to spend her gap year doing voluntary work in Costa Rica, but it is soon apparent that this worthwhile endeavor may not have been of her own choosing. Daddy doesn’t like her boyfriend Mario (Thomas Schubert) and believes his daughter could do better. He tells Jette that she should broaden her horizons by travelling and doing some social good. This is the story of how Jette learns to rebel. It finally dawns on her that she has the right to self-determination, and as she struggles for independence, it is evident that she has a bit of her dad about herself. 

The film is a collaboration between two German directors, Köhler (whose credits include In My Room [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ulrich Köhler
film profile
]
, which played Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2018, and Sleeping Sickness [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ulrich Kohler
film profile
]
, which won a Silver Bear for Best Directing in 2011) and Winckler (making his first film since festival favourite Lucy [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
hit screens in 2006). The directors both went to the Hamburg University of Fine Arts. Winckler has a daughter who spent a year on a gap year in India, and Köhler’s parents were Aid Workers. The collaborative process was tougher on Köhler, who describes himself in the press notes as a control freak, and the two minds have produced an often humorous film featuring plenty of twists, as Jette decides to abscond with Mario rather than get on the plane.

Over the course of the next few days, we learn that Jette is sick of guys making choices for her and that nearly everyone is tired of Urs’ righteousness. With much of the action taking place in an apartment and a car, the film has the air of a chamber piece, although the dramatic shifts are too melodramatic to deliver on the Chekov-like tone that the directors seem to be reaching for. One of the film’s main themes is that female emancipation is an ongoing battle, and the feminist mantra of ‘the personal is political’ is as relevant today as it was during second-wave feminism. 

The story speeds along too quickly at times. There is not much time to pause as we see Urs at work, his own complicated love life, as well as the workings of Jette’s and Mario’s relationship. Though the directors want to keep an everyday context, they don't always succeed, occasionally overdoing the layering of the plot. The film is most successful in the way it demonstrates that having a liberal outlook and politics does not necessarily mean that you are tolerant. 

The film is a Sutor Kolonko production commissioned by Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

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