In the gauche mitts of a director commissioned by the Lifetime Network, Fraulein could have been horrid. Thankfully, writer and director Andrea Staka has chosen to address the subject of a friendship between an unhappy older woman and the sprite of a stranger she hires to work in her restaurant with some subtlety.
Drawing conclusions about what happens and why takes more work than in the typical cross between the intergenerational-female-reconciliation narrative and the stranger-comes-to-town narrative. When reached, the conclusions to be drawn are not really profound or challenging. But the process of reaching them has style enough to justify the journey.
Watching Staka acquaint the audience with the characters is involving. The screenplay paints them deftly, with attention to details and a light enough touch to make the audience exert a little effort in piecing together their personalities. Ruza (Mirjana Karanovic) is in her late 40s, the owner of a cafeteria in Germany frequented by émigrés from the former Yugoslavia. She’s also an émigré, having moved from Belgrade prior to her native country’s spate of self-immolation. Ana (Marija Skaricic) endured the civil war as a child in Sarajevo, the Bosnian city that was the site of many massacres. She exhibits the abandon and frank disregard of danger characteristic of many who survive war as a child. Her manner is generally warm, if wanton, though she responds without empathy to questions about her life during the war.
For example, just after arriving in Germany, Ana leaves the train station with some strangers and follows them to a party. Under a haze of spliff smoke, one of the partygoers asks about life in wartime with naïve curiosity. Ana answers, apparently unperturbed, “My aunt said I always stopped to look at the dead.” Ana’s demeanor isn’t darkened by the exchange but it’s clear she’s haunted.
Ruza is painted in similarly spare but telling strokes. Her arm bears the imprint of a watch even after a night without wearing it; she is wound tight and pressed upon by maintaining what she has accumulated. Banter is not her province, even as she mans a cash register.
The two very different people develop a friendship over the course of the film and it moves each of them some ways from where they started. The trajectory of the transformation isn’t innovative but the novel cinematic ethic brought by Staka, the excellent performances she elicits from the actors, and the poignant historical circumstances of the characters lends freshness to an otherwise overworked premise.
Fraulein plays as part of World-Wide Cinema at the Missoula Public Library Friday, Oct. 12, at 7 PM. Free.