Directed by Frederik Steiner
Written by Barbara Te Kock
Frederik Steiner’s film Zurich is possibly the nicest film you’ll ever see about someone deciding to enlist the aid euthanasia clinic. Young Lea, played by Lisa Liv Fries, is only 20 years old, but with cystic fibrosis limiting her days and the knowledge that whatever days she has left will be pretty miserable, she decides for the ultimate “opt out.” If ever there were a film to fall into the sticky, saccharine clutches of mawkishness it would be this movie, where the pre-deceased is a such plucky youngster with so much zeal for life that you can’t imagine her even considering killing herself. But somehow Steiner and his group of actors toe the line quite gracefully, supplying the right levels of honest comedy and drama without feeling exploitative of the tough subject matter, though it does have its missteps. Crying is practically unavoidable in Zurich, both for the actors and the audience. At the end of the film, the woman sitting next to me just couldn’t stop weeping and looked at her male companion in between sobs exclaimed “You chose this one!” before they quickly left the room.
What really makes the film special is Lisa Liv Fries, who gives an outstanding performance devoid of self-pity and avoiding showy internalizations of inner-turmoil. Fries is completely in tune with the world around her, taking in all the information and experiencing life in such a hyperactive way, relishing every moment as if it were her last. Because, you know, it actually is. In dialogues with her mother and sister she seems on the verge of tears, not because she’s trying to cry, but because she’s reacting to how difficult this situation is for her family. Lea knows her family loves her and and Fries plays the character as accepting and grateful of that love but steadfast in her decision to live on her own terms. While this emotional availability is in itself hard to come by and even sustain for an actor, Fries does so while giving a very physically demanding performance that requires her to be in a constant struggle to catch her breath. It’s such a technically precise portrayal that it’s surprising to see it come from a young woman of only 23.
And what are the odds that I’d find myself watching another German film in which a young girl chooses the end her life? Stations of the Cross is about a 14-year-old fundamental Catholic named Maria and her quest to sacrifice her life to prove her love for God and for her young brother who can’t speak. Dietrich Brüggemann takes a more detached approach to the subject matter, separating the film into 14 chapters, each one named for Jesus Christ’s Stations of the Cross. Each chapter is shot in single takes, often with a static camera capturing the tableaux. While this seems like a decidedly sterile approach, Brüggemann manages to get find quite a bit of humor both in the subject and even in the staging of each scene, with the way characters enter or exit the frame.
Brüggemann manages to tell the story without taking the easy way out and outright condemning religion itself. Instead he takes aim at the people within the religion and how they abuse a beautiful mythology to control and manipulate each other. It’s not horrible that Maria wants to give her life for her brother and to prove her devotion to her God and family, in fact it’s genuinely touching. The real problem comes from the people teaching the lessons, demanding that a person sacrifice everything that brings them pleasure and thus leaving room for a misguided and good-natured child to take things several dozen steps too far. The issue of organized religion and its place in the world can’t simply be discussed in terms of its abolishment – an impossible task that avoids the real underlying issues that cause good religions to go bad.
What’s most fascinating about looking at the films together is how the perception of the lead character changes at the end of the film. Zurich celebrates Lea for her bravery to end her life on her own terms, despite committing an act that is looked down on in some societies as cowardly and selfish. On the other hand Maria’s death is expressed as a waste of life, despite her intentions being the kind that saints are celebrated for. Both films twist the expectations that come with the subject of suicide, and provide fresh perspectives on what it means to make a choice that can irrevocably change the lives of everyone around you long after you’ve gone.
Jae K Renfrow