The always-compelling German actor Nina Hoss (best known for Barbara and Phoenix, her collaborations with director Christian Petzold) stars as a neurotic, conflicted violin teacher and mother in this sticky, stop-start drama set in the exacting, pressurised realm of classical music. Those who know this world are aware that it’s an arena where fierce discipline and innate talent is required to succeed and secure coveted spots at, first, highly competitive schools and then, for adults, in ensembles and orchestras. Not all music teachers are Mr Holland’s Opus-style nurturers for sure, but films such as this one as well as Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and, to an extent, the jazz-angled Whiplash, love to dwell on characters whose minds are contorted into all kinds of perverse, emotionally mangled shapes by their devotion to excellence.
Hoss’s Anna is a less outre version of this tortured-or-torturing music teacher meme, a woman whose backstory and psychology gets filled in somewhat ploddingly by writers Daphne Charizani and Ina Weisse. (Weisse, an actor herself, also directs.) The only child of a forbidding and cruel father, Anna has developed an almost-morbid fear of failure that hobbled her career as a violinist, which would explain why she’s become a teacher. Now married to a schlubby-sexy French instrument-maker (played by Simon Abkarian), Anna pushes her son Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) to play the violin as well, even though the poor kid would clearly prefer to help dad in the workshop or play ice hockey instead. (God forbid any of the kids in this world might play video games or listen to rock music.) When Anna volunteers to coach the adolescent Alexander (real-life prodigy Ilja Monti) to help him get into Berlin’s top conservatory, she becomes obsessed with shaping his talent, pushing him relentlessly in a way that not only upsets her family but threatens to break Alexander’s spirit.
In light of the strange, brutal ending that’s more foreshadowed than it seems, it’s hard to work out where Weisse wants to land on issues around the best way to coax talent, especially in fields such as music where you have to put in a relentless amount of hours to achieve the highest results. We’re clearly meant to infer Anna is a few horsehairs short of the full bow given her weird other relationships in the film – like the strangely cold/erotic interactions with both her husband and a handsome cellist co-worker (Jens Albinus) who invites her to join his string quintet, and that’s not a sexual euphemism. It’s not even clear if Anna and the latter are actually having an affair or whether they just like to make out furtively in hallways. (“Touch my breast. Now the other one,” she commands him before abruptly storming off after a fraught experience.) Thankfully, there’s no bodily self-mutilation, although sudden presto violence forms part of the story.