Twentieth-century German history has consistently lent itself to cinematic interpretations. Veteran director Margarethe von Trotta's THE PROMISE is one of the first features out of a reunified Germany to mine the rich source material of dramatic events surrounding the fall of the Berlin
East German teenage lovers Konrad (Anian Zollner) and Sophie (Meret Becker) are separated during an attempted escape from East Berlin precipitated by the building of the infamous wall in 1961. Sophie manages to flee with some school friends through the divided city's one sewage system, but Konrad,
in attempting to cover up their escape route, gets left behind. The plot is discovered by Konrad's father who, out of party loyalty, turns his son over to the Communist authorities. After some routine punishment, Konrad (played as an adult by August Zirner) grows up to be a world-renowned
physicist and model East German citizen.
Meanwhile Sophie (played as an adult by Corinna Harfouch) makes her life in West Germany, working as an interpreter and tour guide. The two stay in touch through mutual friends and smuggled messages, finally arranging a brief but passionate reunion in Prague, coincidentally during the tumultuous
Soviet invasion of the summer of 1968. The meeting eventually results in the birth of a son. Even though Konrad and Sophie live in the same city, the wall separates them, so the relationship continues to be played out against the escalating and ultimately subsiding tensions between East and West.
As travel restrictions for East Germans are relaxed in the 1980s, the couple meets once again. Konrad gets to know his son but discovers that Sophie is now in a long-term relationship with a French journalist.
Von Trotta's thoughtful script, which she cowrote with Peter Schneider, has deftly captured the suffering and stubbornness that characterized relations between the two Germanys during the Cold War. She has pulled credible and moving performances from two sets of actors playing the protagonists,
first as teenagers and later as adults. The intense emotional undercurrents that characterize lovers divided both by an ideology and a physical barrier are palpable. The film successfully captures the telling visual details which encapsulate the social and economic differences that marked the
separation of the East from the West for nearly 50 years.
A charter member of New German Cinema, the group of filmmakers who emerged in the late 1960s intent upon reviving a moribund German cinema, von Trotta has created an accessible film that would have traveled better internationally had it been made in English, though the subtitled version provides
an adequate translation. Sentimental, even Hollywoodish by German standards, THE PROMISE is straightforward storytelling in the best narrative and cinematic tradition. (Adult situations.)
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