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Matthias Glasner's Dying / Sterben


Dying (Sterben) | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

Dying (Sterben) | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

Family Matters: Glasner’s Sprawling Portrait of Chaotic Dysfunction

Matthias Glasner Dying ReviewExemplifying Tolstoy’s famous Anna Karenina quote on ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,’ German filmmaker Matthias Glasner makes his first narrative feature in over a decade with the cryptically titled Dying. At three hours running time split up into chapters, it’s something of an intimidating saga of the fluctuating unhappiness of one German family long estranged from one another. With an iciness akin to Bergman (whose Fanny & Alexander is referenced to assist in Glasner’s rather morbid Christmas spirit), two unhappy siblings, who are unhappy in their own way, are forced to begrudgingly interact as their equally detached parents’ health declines over the course of a year.

Lissy Lunies (Corinna Harfouch) is staring death in the face. With multiple medical issues, including vaginal cancer (which she does not plan on treating), she’s also forced to contend with her husband Gerd’s dementia (Hans-Uwe Bauer), which is wreaking havoc on their quiet lives. A desperate call to her son Tom (Lars Eidinger), the conductor of a youth orchestra in Berlin, suggests all is not well in the Lunies’ world beyond their current physical ailments. A heart attack forces Lissy into the hospital, and Gerd is moved into an assisted care facility. Tom takes his time making his way home, but he has somewhat a good reason. While currently rehearsing a new concert for his best friend Bernard’s (Robert Gwisdek) latest piece, titled Dying, he has also agreed to co-parent his ex girlfriend Liv’s (Anna Bederke) child she just gave birth to (as she is no longer romantically involved with the father, though he’s still in the picture). When Gerd dies, Tom’s sister Ellen (Lilith Stanegenberg) is absent from the funeral. But she’s got her own set of issues, dealing with alcoholism and depression. A romantic interaction with a coworker (Robert Zehrfeld) seems to revive her will to live (though not to stop drinking). With Lissy’s impending death on the horizon and Bernard’s plans to commit suicide shortly after his last piece is performed, everyone seems to have their hands full.

Matthias Glasner Dying Sterben Review

The only major problem with Dying is Glasner’s refusal at conciseness, the film settling into an inevitable fatigue by the third hour, with many of its themes ripe for trimming. It’s strongest when focusing on the miseries of the two main women, a first rate Corinna Harfouch as an emotional void of a mother, and a captivating Lilith Stangenberg as a functional alcoholic whose ennui beyond her familial relationships is not quite defined. Both each having their shining hour, particularly Harfouch whose matter-of-fact revelations to her son boil the film down to its essence regarding the power of the chosen family. It’s just that both Tom and Ellen have the misfortune of making poor choices with whom they decide to share loyalties.

Eidinger is customarily adequate as a Berlin based conductor whose longtime relationship with his composer best friend Bernard adds an extra weight to the narrative which tends to drag the pacing down (although a segment titled “The Thin Line” does provoke with its discussions between creatives being forced to find the delicate balance of pursuing their vision while also making their art accessible enough to retain their intentions). Interestingly, Robert Gwisdek happens to be the real-life son of Harfouch, adding an odd extra-textual dimension.

As Elle, Strangenberg seems to be hanging out on her own, so divorced she is from the rest of the family as a dental hygienist in Hamburg. Her romance with the new dentist, a burly Robert Zehrfeld, plays like the toxic Bukowski soaked paradise of Barfly (1987), with his wife and growing brood back in Munich proving to cement his eventual unavailability despite a brief respite of potential salvation for Elle. A scene where brother and sister finally share the same place during the long-awaited premiere of Tom and Bernard’s new piece unspools in fantastic fashion, as if their consent to occupy the same space invariably leads to chaos.

The least interesting dilemma happens to be Tom’s convoluted relationship with Liv, a woman who had a relationship with Tom a decade ago, an aborted pregnancy causing them to have made a pact to remain connected. His foolhardy agreement to raise her child alongside the peripheral biological father ends up with expected squabbles often proving banal. Glasner’s insistence on a hopeful ending (courtesy of the under-utilized Saskia Rosendahl, one of Tom’s colleagues), also feels unnecessary. Throughout all these endless complications, Dying remains interesting enough, with a handful of dramatic outbursts more often than not compensating for the ennui which has pickled almost everyone involved with the Lunies family.

Reviewed on February 18th at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival – Main Competition section. 180 mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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