The Struggle to be Loved

Du bist nicht allein: Finding identity in a Berlin newly perceived

On The Town | Valerie Crawford-Pfannhauser | October 2008

Katerina Medvedeva and Axel Prahl in the comdedy Du Bist Nicht Allein (Photo: Neue Visionen Films)

Du bist nicht allein (You Are Not Alone) is a sensitively observed, bitter-sweet social comedy of depth and psychological insight. Everything comes together, with authentic performances, a poignant dialogue with perfect comic timing, and vivid cinematography.

Set in the Marzahn district of Berlin, most of the action takes place in the 8th floor of a high-rise apartment block where the characters live side by side. We find an eclectic mix of likeable people: the main character, painter/decorator Hans Moll (Axel Prahl) and his wife (Katharina Thalbach), the TV presenter Frau Wellinek (Karoline Eichorn), her husband the physicist Herr Wellinek (Herbert Knaup), and the Russian, Jewgenia (Katerina Medvedeva). Frau Wellinek lives in a modest house not far from the block and her estranged husband has a view of the house from his balcony.

These are characters displaced. They struggle for identity, to be heard, to be loved, to find employment – and meaning in their lives. The high-rise building is a point of intersection, a relief from alienation and oppression. This kind of setting has become a signature of recent German films, which seeks to dispel the prejudice that surrounds these living spaces.

Hans comes alive when he meets his new Russian neighbour, the attractive Jewgenia, discovering excitement that he had long since forgotten. He helps her find furnishings for the apartment, spending money he can ill afford. He has fallen in love and makes excuses to be around her, dressing up smartly for her housewarming, even wearing aftershave.  He goes to the extent of falling into a primitive rivalry with another neighbor, Herr Wellinek, over who is going to fix her new washing machine.

There are many wonderful, quiet gestures in this film that reach to the heart of human experience and behaviour, desires and disappointments. At the housewarming party, Hans is asked to sing. At first embarrassed, he eventually lets his inhibitions go to reveal a good voice as he croons a love song, "Du bist nicht allein." He and Jewgenia dance together at the end of the evening, and it is as if nothing else in the universe exists except their need for each other.

Work itself is a theme that runs through the film – work as a marker of identity, giving purpose and structure to life. Frau Moll is giddy with excitement when she is offered a job as a security guard.

As she sits through a group training session in her smart new uniform she is invigorated by the motivational speaker, who tells them that they too "are not alone." She is a proud, kind and unassuming woman, so much so that she does not realise that Hans is increasingly lost to her.

While life affirming in many ways, Du bist nicht allein is also a critique of a system that does not value its members, where neither the educated nor the uneducated can easily find work.

At the employment office Herr Wellinek, is forced to wait three hours, only to be treated rudely and dismissively. Frau Wellinek finds demeaning work as the voice over for a telephone sex advert. When she is told there is a chance of a acting job for a larger woman, she dresses up in layers of clothes and cushions, only to be told that they now want someone ‘anorexic’ for the role.

Eventually, the characters help each other make the best of their situations. Some things in their lives end, new things begin, in a quiet nod toward optimism.

This is not life writ large; there is no heroism here other than the choice to find a way to continue in a world where choice seems almost out of reach.

Other articles from this issue