Sterben Hits the Thin Line with Ease


Around halfway through the epic familial drama Sterben (Matthias Glasner, 2024), conductor Tom Lunies (Lars Eidinger) explains The Thin Line to his composer friend Bernard’s (Robert Gwisdek) girlfriend Mi-Do (Saerom Park). To paraphrase, it’s a work of art that is both solely authentic and one that can appeal to a wide audience. I.e., it contains moments of beauty and mystery and truth without disappearing up the arsch of the individual artist. 

It’s also a neat way of describing Glasner’s masterpiece, a weighty and ambitious three-hour drama that seems to thrive in that space between personal expression and accessibility. Undoubtedly moving and depressing — I mean the title literally means “dying” — it mines the true gold of humanity through countless moments of levity and pure and honest expression. 

We begin with the parents, Lissy (Corinna Harfouch) and Gerd (Hans-Uwe Bauer) Lunies. She’s dying of cancer; he’s dying of Parkinson’s. Immediately, Glasner refuses to shy away from the indignity of dying old: Lissy has soiled herself and Gerd is wandering around naked, fruitlessly looking for help. It’s awfully depressing, but the way that it’s shot captures the absurdity and comic potential of the tragedies of life. 

This well-balanced mix of tragicomic pathos brings to mind the best of Kenneth Lonergan, an impulse that keeps Sterben fresh as it moves between perspectives, shifts in time and reflects back on itself in its bitterly ironic (yet very touching) circle of life tale. 

Just as some people die, others begin a new life. Composer Tom (Eidinger) is a new father, sort of. His ex-partner Liv (Anna Bederke) has just given birth, and she wants Tom, not the wishy-washy real father, to raise him. This is one of many acutely specific life situations that makes Sterben so effective, especially as we see Tom balance his work — putting on Bernard’s new composition, also called “Dying” — with his responsibility towards his parents and his alcoholic sister Ellen (Lilith Stangenberg). 

Lars Eidinger has the rare quality of projecting strength through passivity. Like Robert DeNiro at his best, he can react silently to many (many, many, many) revelations without ever being boring. Sometimes he’s mute, sometimes he responds in kind, and sometimes he can be harsh, saying a thoughtless or stupid thing, yet all the time we get the sense that he’s truly thinking and pondering what is happening and how it is happening. It’s a true masterclass, with the conducting scenes themselves — far more understated than Bradley Cooper’s Maestro (2023) — a model of restraint and suppressed emotions. 

On the other hand, Stangenberg’s Ellen is all impulse. When she first appears, a sizeable way into the film, she is face down in a hotel breakfast room. Inexplicably, she’s in Riga. Latvia. How she got to the Baltics is never explained, but it’s linked to her alcoholism. Her drunken and crazy moments, often creating deeply comic bits at her dental practice, provide the perfect contrast to Tom’s quietness; displaying how parental trauma can manifest itself in diametrically-opposed ways. 

If the measure of a great film is three great scenes and no bad ones, then Sterben must surely qualify. A centrepiece involving Tom confronting his mother is both blackly comic and deeply disturbing. The performance itself is a tragedy of comic errors. And the conclusion is deeply fitting, capturing the true messiness of family instead of reaching towards pat conclusions. 

A reference towards Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982, four-hour TV version) might be pushing the comparison a little too far, but it’s lovely to see a director try and reach towards a humanist masterpiece, rather than not bother to hit the Thin Line entirely. 

The shelf life of this film seems long. Unlike life, which can be bitter and short and cruel. Films like this remind us to love (or at least tolerate) one another while we still can. 

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Redmond is the editor-in-chief of Journey Into Cinema.