Das Versprechen (1994)


(director/writer: Margarethe Von Trotta; screenwriter: Peter Schneider; cinematographer: Franz Rath; editor: Suzanne Baron; music: Jürgen Knieper; cast: Meret Becker (Young Sophie), Corinna Harfouch (Sophie Sellman), Anian Zollner (Young Konrad), August Zirner (Konrad Richter), Eva Mattes (Barbara); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Eberhard Junkersdorf; Artificial Eye/Fine Line Features; 1994-German-in German with English subtitles)
“It becomes too fuzzy when it tries to explain in 115 minutes the history of modern Germany.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Leftist high priestess of the New German Cinema of the ’70s and ’80s Margarethe Von Trotta’s (“Sisters: Or The Balance Of Happiness”/”Sheer Madness”/”Rosa Luxembourg”) The Promise fails to deliver on its promise of a comprehensive history lesson of the divided Germanys from the time of the Wall in 1961 until its fall some 28 years later. The film is evocative when it keeps focused on the political situation and on the star-crossed lovers coping with their bad situation, but it becomes too fuzzy when it tries to explain in 115 minutes the history of modern Germany. What occurs is a realistic, tender and biting love story, with different actors portraying the lovers in youth and middle-age. The Wall is used as a metaphor for a divided Germany.

In 1961, as the Berlin Wall goes up, teenagers Sophie (Meret Becker) and Konrad (Anian Zollner) plan to flee to the West with some friends. But Konrad lags behind and that delay eradicates any possibility of escape, even though he promises to join his friends when he can. Seven years later an adult Konrad (Zirner) has become an eminent astrophysicist, and is given permission to travel to Prague for a two week seminar. The lovers meet in Prague, but political events again intervene when the Soviet tanks invade the Prague of 1968. Again they remain true to their character as Sophie (Harfouch) takes risks but, as before, Konrad plays it safe and remains behind. A result of their short reunion is that Sophie has her lover’s child (their son becomes a symbol for the unification of the divided country). Through the years, they see their possibilities of being together dwindle. By 1980 they have each married other people. Their next meeting in 1989 comes too late to bring back all that they have lost, even as the dreaded Wall comes down. They are left only with memories and dreams and thoughts of what they might have missed, as they sadly ponder what might have been a lovely life together. In the ambiguous conclusion Konrad has become a workaholic scientist who tries to lose himself in his work for the government, while Sophie raises their son but remains a bitter woman.

Every time I tried to get into the lover’s personal story I was hit in the face with another metaphor. Though on a more positive note, I couldn’t help sinking into the dirge-like mood the film seemed to savor and that such poignancy was not only well earned but also at times genuinely touching. There was a power in this straightforward political/romantic drama, but the characterizations seemed too heavy with Eastern bloc rigidity as the weaving together of history and personal events seemed too forced and convenient even if the bitter story itself is hard to dispute.