Stopped on Track (2011), Halt auf freier Strecke (original title)

Stopped on Track (2011), Halt auf freier Strecke (original title)

Frank and Simone share a tender moment

  • Language: German
  • Director: Andreas Dresen
  • Length 110 mins

Awards : Cannes Film Festival(Un Certain Regard Award),Best Direction (German Film Award 2012), Best Feature Film (German Film Award 2012), Best Actor (German Film Award 2012), Best Supporting Actor (German Film Award 2012), Best Young Actor (German Film Award 2012), Best Actress (Bavarian Film Award 2012)


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.

The famous opening lines from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina come to mind as one watches this film.

The film begins with a close up shot of a middle aged couple listening to a doctor them that the husband has an advanced stage malignant brain tumor and as opposed to other types of tumors which can be operated and cured this one cannot be touched and must be allowed to cause death.There are no good options, chemotherapy and medication will be given but will not prolong life beyond two months and at the cost of extreme discomfort, while the body shuts down in installments. The wife fights back tears as she tries to make sense of what she is hearing and its wider implications, perhaps.The man looks on, completely bewildered. The doctor interrupts the conversation to take a call from a colleague to  discuss expanding the operation theaters to meet the growing demand. I suspect the doctor uses this as an opportunity for creating a useful pause in the conversation. The static camera never leaves the couples faces while he talks on  the phone.We see the doctor only much later in the scene when he answers the questions of the devastated couple.He asks about their family, their children and other practical matters in a professional manner.He is not being unsympathetic but as a trained doctor he knows how to break the bad news without becoming part of the grief .The director Andreas Dresen never looks away and we are not allowed to either.

Frank(Milan Peschel) works for DHL in a logistics hub and his wife Simone(Steffi Kuhnert) is a tram driver.They have two children, a teenage girl Lilli and a young 8 year old boy Mika.They are not rich but lead a comfortable and secure life in prosperous modern Germany.They have recently moved in to a new home and when guests come to call, a house tour is part of the somber visit. The children are confused, unable to fully comprehend the meaning of Franks death in their lives.The 8 year old son asks “papa are you really going to die?” and then literally in the same breath,”Will I get your iPhone?” Frank then pulls out his iphone to record a video diary, which he starts soon after learning of his terminal illness. His daughter looks detached and appears to treat the episode as a minor irritant in her routine. Their respective parents visit and his mother leaves behind CDs on self-healing and hypnosis which only put Frank to sleep.The parents need to be calmed and consoled which adds to the chores of their already complicated life.His colleagues just slink away trying not to put their own emotional health in harms way.

Acting on advise of the numerous health care workers who appear in the film to “enjoy life”, played by real life professionals, imparting the film a docu-drama look, the family takes a break to visit a giant enclosed oasis of tropical weather.The trip proves to be too much for Frank to bear and the family returns abruptly.

Franks rapid decline is filmed sensitively and his wife Simone continues with life as best as she can while confronting the sobering reality of being left alone.She allows herself to loose her temper, yelling at Frank when he is being self indulgent.She is much relived when a councilor tells her that its OK to loose her temper at a dying man.

They make love awkwardly and for Simone too it may be last time ever.

So why should we see a film that takes us into a death stricken household when the end is known from the beginning. To me the simple answer is that it may substitute for the realizations acquired after losing someone dear to us.Its as if the shock of the uncertainty of life can be had here for the price of a movie ticket. While that sounds glib, the extreme level of intimacy offered in the film does place the viewer in 2 hours of discomfort, very similar to one that visitors to terminally ill people feel.

Societies have very different ways of dealing with death. In Africa, I was struck by how quickly people moved on even after untimely deaths of family members, while celebrating with gusto the death of old people who had lived long happy lives.People of Rajasthan,India have a custom of hiring professional mourners called rudaali who are women trained to cry at a high pitch and add to the atmosphere of mourning at a funeral.I recently saw a Phillipino lady pull herself back to seeming normalcy within a day of loosing her granddaughter, saying she is at peace after gifting her to God! This also raises the question of how a belief in an afterlife can create a consolation for the family as shown by Mahesh Bhatt in his film Saransh.  How well our religion markets heaven and hell affect our ability to handle death. God and religion are absent in Franks family and they must deal with death on purely existential terms. Film as a focussed study of a dying person is likely to meet with a wide range of reactions depending on the nature of individuals and their cultural conditioning.

I lost a friend to brain tumor and her death changed my life. She died suddenly, there had been no warning.In this film Frank and his family are given two months to prepare.Its very difficult to say but I feel the family benefits from the time to prepare itself for the end.

The absolute level of intimacy the viewer is accorded makes us more than a spectator in this troubled household.The film stops short of showing the inevitable death of Frank, ending instead on a searing piece of dialogue.

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Categories: World Cinema

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