Two Lives

Sarah Ward

Starring Juliane Köhler and Liv Ullman, this German-Norwegian is a compelling meditation on identity, morality and family.
Two Lives

In Germany, almost 12 months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and 45 years since the nation was first carved in two, a disguised Katrine (Juliane Köhler, A Quiet Life) scours through her shrouded past. Her journey starts weeks earlier, when her life in Norway is interrupted by a lawyer (Ken Duken, My Last Day Without You) looking to bring closure and compensation to children mistreated by the Nazis. Taken at birth from her Norwegian mother on account of her German soldier father, Katrine appears to be a victim; alas, in a story spanning decades, the truth of her circumstances proves far from straightforward.

With the duality of Two Lives (Zwei Leben) indicated in its title, a permeating sense of unease infiltrates the film from the outset, building as events traverse a series of twists and turns. Yet writer/director Georg Maas (documentary The Buddha Wallah) and co-scribes Christoph Tölle (New Found Land), Ståle Stein Berg (Kissed by Winter) and Judith Kaufmann (Unveiled) enjoy the gift of time in teasing out the details of the tense thriller, as adapted from the novel Eiszeiten by Hannelore Hippe.    

Katrine is immediately revealed as a woman divided, her secretive efforts placed in stark contrast with her loving home life with husband Bjarte (Sven Nordin, An Enemy to Die For), mother Ase (Liv Ullman, Through a Glass, Darkly), daughter Anne (Julia Bache-Wiig, Turn Me On, Goddammit!) and infant granddaughter. In a tale fuelled by war-sanctioned espionage, her precarious situation is slowly revealed in parallel with the issues of identity and acceptance that plagued Germany in its reunification; her struggle between duty and desire, though presented as an intimate family story, reflect the state of the fractured country trying to reform.

A nuanced performance from Köhler embodies the fragility of the chasm between the past and present, whilst acting stalwart Ullman heightens the film’s gravitas in small but influential doses. The many machinations of the plot may force both women’s characters into the service of the narrative, but each handles the developments with delicacy, never wavering in their emotion even as the feature escalates in its obviousness.

Although less astute, Two Lives sits comfortably beside Christian Petzold’s recent award-winner Barbara as an arresting exploration of the dangerous politics of Germany’s history. The topic is likely to grace screens with increasing frequency in the years to come, ideally in productions as probing, polished and intriguing.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5


Two Lives (Zwei Leben)

Director: Georg Maas

Germany/Norway, 2012, 97 min



Audi Festival of German Films

Sydney: 30 March – 14 May

Melbourne: 1 – 15 May

Brisbane: 3 – 9 May

Newcastle: 4 – 5 May

Canberra: 7 – 12 May

Adelaide: 8 – 13 May

Perth: 9 – 13 May

Byron Bay: 10 – 12 May


What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay