Liv Ullman, the now 75-year-old titan of Norwegian cinema, stars in the film Two Lives as the mother of a war child. Her character’s light-colored hair and hollow, blue eyes had once caught the attention of an SS officer in WWII, when German forces occupied Norway. A girl named Katrine (Juliane Köhler) was born of that relationship, and with other children deemed “racially pure,” she was taken by the Nazis to live in special German orphanages for the purpose of bolstering the Aryan bloodline. When the Nazis fell, however, these children were shunned. Since many were not returned to their mothers in Scandinavia, they remained in what would be East Germany, living in orphanages without ties to the outside world. As such, they were often recruited by the country’s secret police, the Stasi. Sometimes, these children were used as spies after “escaping” East Germany to live in other countries. Why am I telling you all this? Because Two Lives is pretty hard to make sense of without this background.
The film is set in the year 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We meet Katrine in an airport in Germany, and due to her wearing a disguise, we know that she’s up to something fishy. When we follow her back to her home in Norway, however, we find that she enjoys a near picture-perfect family life. She has passionate relationship with her submarine captain husband, Bjarte (Sven Nordin), her mother (Ullman) has come to stay with them in their beautiful seaside home, and her daughter (Julia Bache-Wiig) and her accompanying child make it a full house. Our protagonist seems genuinely happy with her life before a lawyer (Ken Duken) walks into it, asking her to testify in a complicated court case. The lawyer wants her to tell the international community how she escaped an orphanage in East Germany to reunite with her mother in Norway. Problem is: That didn’t really happen.
This court case threatens to expose the lie Katrine’s entire life is built upon. Her past with Stasi catches up with her, and she’s forced to choose between hurting her family by lying more or hurting them by telling the truth. Directors Georg Maas and Judith Kaufmann do an admirable job handling the convoluted political situation, and they’re, at times, able make Two Lives feel like a thriller with expert use of grainy flashback sequences. But the film occasionally slides into the realm of melodrama, when the string-laden soundtrack wells up about 10 times too many. Likewise, the cinematography (done by Kaufmann) has a tendency to get too sappy. Landscapes look like postcard watercolor paintings, or as though they were shot with some sort of Instagram filter. These things soften the film’s dramatic edge, causing Ullman’s perfectly hard, ice-colored eyes to get a bit too teary for my taste. Still, Two Lives has its moments, and it also enlightens one to a post-war political reality not often depicted this side of the Atlantic.
Two Lives is playing at the Edina Cinema.