DECEMBER 12, 2011 9:06AM

Last Christmas: Andreas Dresen's new film "Stopped on Track"

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Frank and Simone 
Frank Lange has been given just months to live.
A scene from
the harrowing film Stopped on Track
(Source: IMDb) 

 

THE FILM OPENS IN a doctor’s office where a married couple is just receiving some very bad news. In fact, the office is real and the doctor is real, as is the phone call that interrupts the scene. Only the couple are actors.  Stopped on Track (Halt auf freier Strecke), the story of an average family’s ordeal with a father’s untreatable brain tumor, which opened to euphoric reviews in German cinemas last month, has such a realistic feel to it that by the time you leave the cinema two hours later you’ll be thinking that you have gone through the experience yourself. 

Frank Lange (Milan Peschel) thinks life is good. At age forty-four, he has a solid job at a DHL center and his wife Simone (Steffi Kühnert) drives a streetcar for the BVG, Berlin’s public transport authority. They have two children, a teenage daughter and a boy of around eight, and have just moved into their new duplex on the eastern edge of the capital. 

The brain tumor diagnosis puts a sudden end to all Frank’s dreams. The doctor gives him only a few months to live, and as the film progresses we get to witness, step by wretched step, how he loses control over his temper, his mobility, his sense of orientation, his judgment, his memory, his sexual responses, his bodily functions, and finally his most basic of life processes. The film's title expresses the injustice of being halted halfway on one's life journey.

 

 
Stopped on Track 
The film has been making the rounds of film festivals
since April. There is no word yet on a US release.
Click here or on the poster to watch a brief excerpt.


Even though we may suppress the thought, no one can fail but wonder how they would deal with such an illness if it happened to them personally, or to a friend or family member. I suspect most of us would handle the situation as the people in the film do: with tears, bafflement, anger, and resignation. The film romanticizes and “Disneyfies” nothing. Frank wrestles with death and demands what little dignity he is still able to appreciate, even if it is merely an unobstructed view out the window from his newly-installed hospital bed. 

The children’s response is particularly interesting. As much as they suffer from their father’s illness and mood swings, they are nevertheless determined to continue living their lives. When a seizure sets an abrupt end to the family’s brief getaway to the indoor Tropical Island resort south of Berlin, the kids stage an all-too natural temper tantrum. Son Mika wants to make sure he is going to inherit dad’s iPhone. Daughter Lilli, while as distraught as everyone else in the film, nevertheless places priority on her swim club activities (“I have to go to my training” is a line that has haunted me ever since I watched the film). At one point wife Simone, who has the heaviest cross to bear, admits to a friend that she sometimes wishes “he would just fall asleep” – forever. 

The movie was filmed during the Christmas season one year ago, a period of extremely cold weather and almost constant snowfall. The chilling white backdrop provides a fitting accompaniment to Frank’s rapid decline, and the holiday preparations counterpoint his descent into a morphine-fueled delirium as the birth of the savior coincides with the death of a father.  

Christmas 
Frank and daughter Lilli share a poignant moment

You can’t expect much humor in a story like this, but Frank does get off a joke in one of the several video soliloquies he delivers to his iPhone: “A man goes to his doctor, who tells him 'I’ve got two pieces of bad news. The first is that you’ve got cancer. The second is that you’ve got Alzheimer’s.' The man replies, 'Well, at least it isn’t cancer.'” 

A further bit of gallows humor occurs repeatedly throughout the film when Frank becomes aware of his tumor as a sentient being. On a couple of occasions he imagines he hears radio news updates on the progression of his illness. Then, while watching the Harald Schmidt Show (Germany’s answer to David Letterman), a man claiming to be “Frank Lange’s tumor” steps onto the set and is interviewed by Schmidt as if he were just another celebrity. Finally, Frank sees the tumor’s face on his iPhone screen, and imagines him lying next to him in bed. 

In preparing for this film, director Andreas Dresen spent months interviewing patients, family members, doctors, and palliative care providers. Much of the film stems from Dresen’s own personal experience: his father died of a brain tumor a decade ago. All medical personnel in the film are real, their advice the real deal. Amazingly, Dresen filmed the movie without a script – all dialogues are improvised. 

Frank experiences his final weeks at home, in the bosom of a loving if overwhelmed family, with parents, friends, and caregivers around him to help make his final journey bearable. May we all be so lucky.    

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