Berlinale ’20 – ‘My Little Sister’ Refuses to Shy Away from the Messiest Family Struggles

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The wordless opening scene of My Little Sister, a Berlinale competition entry, is entirely wordless. Lisa (Nina Hoss) stares into space from a hospital bed, blood slowly streaming from an IV in her arm into a bag just above the camera. It soon becomes clear that the playwright has put her life and career on pause to take care of her brother Sven (Lars Eidinger), who is older by two minutes and has recently been diagnosed with aggressive leukaemia, and to support the rapidly ascending career of her husband Martin (Jens Albinus). The pair return to their co-dependent mother (Marthe Keller) in Berlin, leaving Martin in Switzerland, and the ensuing events place Lisa as the lynchpin. When it comes to her old family, new family, or sense of self, she cannot win. 

My Little Sister is, in many ways, a fairly conventional middle-class family drama. The characters are plagued by issues specific to privilege (one of the film’s major points is around which elite school Martin will work at) and, aside from the cancer, there is never a question of survival. That said, masterful performances from its two leads hold attention and sympathy throughout. Hoss foreground Lisa’s self-sustainability and drive, allowing an almost violent resentment to surface as the pressures of her world fold in on her. Eidinger’s Sven uses a collection of colourful theatre department wigs and endless witty comebacks to mask the anger he knows is futile. Writing and directing duo Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond utilise their long collaborative history and theatre background in Lisa and Sven’s long conversations about nothing. These are joyous, intimate moments that capture a lifetime of jokes, dreams, and worries. The basis for the ensuing tragedy is skilfully laid here. 

Literary and theatrical references abound in this world, from the Rilke of the classroom to the Brechtian theatre Lisa wishes to create. While emphasising the specific privilege and world the characters belong to and occasionally veering into overindulgence, the two most consistent referential threads poignantly reinforce the characters’ journeys. These are Hamlet and Hansel and Gretel – timeless stories of loss. Before his diagnosis Sven was the star of the Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre, and he hopes to make his return to the stage as Shakespeare’s Danish prince – a role he knows inside and out after weeks in a sterile hospital room. There is no parallel descent into madness, but Hamlet’s agonised, stagnant reckonings mirror Sven’s own prolonged avoidance of his dire situation. The fairy tale suits Lisa and Sven to a tee: two siblings, inseparable, up against a danger neither of them can fathom. Gretel’s smarts save Hansel from the witch; perhaps one final play will change their world.   

On a more contemporary level, Lisa’s and Martin’s relationship subplot immediately brings to mind Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, as the two artistic high achievers find their relationship is tested over living location and the professional sacrifices made to accommodate the other’s brilliant career. Unlike Charlie and Nicole, however, Lisa and Martin have the added consideration of Sven’s illness; no one wants to talk about how much time he might have left, but the unsaid stressors weigh heavy. ‘Being Alive’ is an anthem marking the end of an epoch, but finding one’s way out of a forest, pursued by a hungry witch, is a desperate attempt to continue normalcy. What elevates My Little Sister is its extraordinary tenderness and depiction of the family pressures that too often fall to women. The family relationships created by Chuat and Reymond’s script prove the film’s highlight; barbed comments and explosive bitterness coexist with fierce love and irreverent laughter, giving an honest, unidealised look at a worst possible scenario. In the last act, My Little Sister refuses to let the many threads of Lisa’s and Sven’s lives come together neatly; instead, they face frustration, grief, and the overwhelming realisation that returning to the past is impossible for them – let alone their extended families. The messy nature of loss and familial destruction is devastatingly captured, and the fact that this weight falls overwhelmingly to Lisa is a cruel, horribly recognisable twist. The catharsis of My Little Sister comes from its honesty, and this bravery cements its staying power.  

by Carmen Paddock

Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie

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