Just what I needed. It starts out with chuckles and giggles, then progresses to all-out incredulous laughter and clapping of hands. And yet, somehow, it manages to end with your nose buried deep inside a handkerchief, sniffing, bawling and crying your eyes out. I don’t know whether to call it brilliant, an emotional roller coaster, or simply therapy.
Because I have a feeling that is what the director of this movie believes: that we need therapy. All of us “normal” people, all of us “healthy and productive people”, young and middle-aged, we need this movie. The sandwich generation, the 30-somethings who have it all but not a clue what to do with it or how to master it.
Look carefully at Frau Müller, the chief supervisor in Kilian Riedhof’s recent film Sein letztes Rennen (His last race) and you will shudder. It is a little like looking in the mirror. I was painfully reminded that my 60-year-old parents still go to dancing parties while we are crushed by work, responsibilities and conventions at home, barely touching.
Paul Averhoff, a former marathon champion and adorably stubborn 80-year-old played by Dieter Hallervorden (a touching, first-class performance), challenges the contemporary obsession with preserving life in its physical form at the expense of spiritual freedoms and dignity.
Together with his wife Margot, he lives in a house full of memories and old furniture in the outskirts of Berlin. A good team, still going about their daily routines with peaceful elegance and jolly spirits. But don’t be fooled. Old things break, and so do old people. The scene where he picks an apple from his own tree, in his own sunny garden, and casually avoids a broken rung on the ladder while stepping down can only be a bad omen.
You cannot keep avoiding disaster. Even though he is doing pretty well himself, his wife is not. We see her fall and hurt herself in the kitchen and we learn it is not the first time. A frantic daughter arrives. She is a stewardess living in a parallel world of international flights and empty designer hotel rooms, with “no private life” (as she puts it), and “no friends” (as her parents put it). Obviously, she cannot look after the aging couple.
The nursing home is the only feasible solution. And so Margot and Paul find themselves transplanted over night in a depersonalized and cramped home for the elderly somewhere in the German capital, where one of the first things they lose is their dignity. At lunch, in the cafeteria, they eat from plastic saucers and the hierarchies are those of a kindergarten. (There is even a bully.) The personnel use patronizing baby talk and flex their muscles about every slight departure from the in-house norms. The other inhabitants seem long resigned with this being “the last station of their life” as the caregiver bluntly points out in a soft voice that is intended to purport concern. And while the characters in this movie all receive the best possible treatment for their failing bodies, their souls are crushed and vacated. Their motor abilities are kept alive by handicraft as vapid as the little men they build for the fall festival. Little men as frail and useless as themselves.
Paul alone cannot accept this kind of resignation. Death is forever present, but that does not mean we should wait around for it poking toothpicks into chestnuts. He can build something else. He can build a dream for himself and for the others. He can build himself a goal.
He wants to run the Berlin Marathon once again. After an initial reluctance on her part, he enlists the help of his wife and former trainer. Pushing a stopwatch in her hand, he starts running in the home’s park.
Needless to say, this has consequences on a variety of levels. The crippled retirees experience the thrill of something real for the first time in years and forget their wretchedness. The hospital staff and the estranged daughter are up in arms. The only sane individual in a society gone wrong, Paul stands out as a “problem”. The establishment, incapable of self-critique (with the exception of a casual young male nurse with a penchant for non-conformism and profanities) makes him out to be the disturbed one. All fingers are pointed at him, his every natural instinct and youthful action psychoanalyzed for signs of grave depression by the over-eager lonely supervisor with a frigid beauty and a serious helper syndrome.
Deep down, we all know (or think we know) what is possible. We know one cannot run away from death. Not all the time. We all know (or think we know) what roles others should content themselves with, after all, they have lived their lives.
Yet, if we keep our minds only slightly open, we all want to believe as well. We want to believe he can pull this off. For all our sakes. What if he is running not away from something, but towards something?
This is a point all the young characters around him (with the exception of above-mentioned male nurse) seem to have forgotten, or are unable to conceive, wrapped up in themselves and their jobs as they are. What if he is running not against something, but for something else? Once we flip the perspective, we can actually accomplish something, we can turn our lives around. There is still meaning out there.
A loved one disappears, another one is born. There are people around us who will always need us for something. As long as we “never stand still”. As long as we “always keep going”. Paul Averhoff makes that journey and he is kind enough to let us tag along.
Sein letztes Rennen is running at cinemas around Munich this week. Don’t miss it! (Prices around €8.50.)