It seems that most films these days have characters who are killed off in one fashion or another and we never give their death more than a second of thought. Rarely do we have a movie that only deals with someone who is dying. A few years ago, 50/50 covered the subject of a young man who faces a rare spinal cancer and it did so with the right mix of humour and dignity. And, around the same time, German director Andreas Dresen came out with HALT AUF FREIER STRECKE (STOPPED ON TRACK). This film also deals with someone battling cancer; however, it has no laugh out loud funny moments in it.
In STOPPED ON TRACK, Frank Lange is your average, 40-year-old, DHL package sorter in Germany. Simone, his wife, is a tram driver. They, along with their two kids, live a typical middle class, suburban lifestyle. They have just moved into a nice new house when the bomb gets dropped on them: The couple is told that Frank has an inoperable brain tumour and he has, at best, just a few months left to live. Perhaps understandably, Frank is in shock when he hears the news. For Simone, however, she knows their lives will never be the same again as tears fall from her eyes. The Langes decide they need to tell their children but when the time for that conversation arrives, they cannot bring themselves to doing it. Instead, the children are left to wonder why Mom and Dad are so sad and why Dad is getting sicker by the day. Eventually though, they do figure it out. For 14-year-old Lili, it’s a slight inconvenience. For 8-year-old Mika though, he wants to know if he can have Dad’s iPhone when he’s gone.
Dresen, who previously tackled the subject of old people having sex in the film CLOUD 9, doesn’t shy away from reality – warts and all – in his films. He once said that “You do not have to like [my] characters, but you do at least have to understand them a little.” True, we don’t develop a friendship with Frank Lange. He’s a nice guy but he’s not loveable the way Adam Lerner in 50/50 is. And Frank doesn’t have a bar hopping, bong smoking BFF like Seth Rogen. Frank, however, does have a devoted wife who struggles to keep the family together while he physically and mentally unravels.
As in Dresen’s other works, STOPPED ON TRACK had no script. The theme was developed and then improvised in front of the camera. All of the medical professionals in the film were, in fact, real medical professionals. So, when the palliative care doctor counsels Simone and tells her that it’s okay to vent her frustrations once in a while, she is giving out both practical and sound advice.
Germany is not Hollywood and there are no happy endings for the Lange family. We watch as Frank health declines until the pain is just too much for his body to bear. It’s not easy to watch but, at least for me, it didn’t bring tears to my eyes in the way 50/50 did. I think the reason for that is because 50/50 has moments of humour that lift your spirits before crashing them down to Earth each time Adam has to deal with his cancer. In STOPPED ON TRACK, the Langes never have funny moments. The best they have are the times when they can demonstrate how much they truly love each other. It’s hard to say which story is more realistic.
The film has won a number of prestigious awards in Germany, as well as the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. It is somewhat heartbreaking to watch but, if you can handle the subject matter, it is well worth your time.
STOPPED ON TRACK will be screened as part of the EUFF. You can catch it at the Palace IFC cinema on Saturday afternoon, March 1st, and again at the Broadway Cinematheque on Tuesday night, March 4th.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 36:50.)
I couldn’t find a decent trailer with English subtitles. Here’s one with Spanish STs but you’ll be able to figure out what’s going on: