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Till the End of the Night 2023 Movie Review
True to its title, German psycho-thriller Till the End Of The Night is a densely nocturnal affair, but there’s a thin line between sombre and murky, and Christoph Hochhäusler’s genre-tweaking film eventually crosses it. It’s a promising piece that impresses with strong acting and intense atmospherics, but too many narrative question marks, some character issues and a sluggish midsection defuse the tension. A deep-cover cop drama with a trans theme, the film is unlikely to make a wide splash, but should find a decent share of appreciative festival and platform outlets.
Writer-director Hochhaüsler, here following up 2014’s The Lies Of The Victors, is best known for elegant steel-and-glass psychodrama The City Below (2010) and his contribution, with Christian Petzold and Dominik Graf, to 2011 TV trilogy Dreileben. Here he offers another of his stylised art-cinema tweaks on crime drama. The setting is Frankfurt, where a trans woman, Leni (Thea Ehre), arrives at a surprise party in a flat we see being refurbished under the opening credits. Her friends are delighted to see her, but unimpressed by her new boyfriend Robert (Timocin Ziegler): “That species,” one sneers, “still thinks with its spinal cord.”
After the party, however, Hochhäusler reveals the real nature of the couple’s relationship. Robert is a cop and Leni has been released from a prison sentence in exchange for helping catch a criminal – former DJ turned club owner Victor (Michael Sideris), who now runs an illicit drug trafficking website. But it’s a little more complicated than that because, while they’re playing lovers, Robert once had a relationship with Leni before she transitioned and is still burning a torch.
The set-up is paced slowly, with Leni and Robert attending a ballroom dancing class in order to effect a ‘chance’ meeting with Victor, who is also there with discontented girlfriend Nicole (Ioana Iacob). Victor recognises Leni as the sound engineer who used to work in his club, and the two couples seem to hit it off quickly. Leni and Nicole especially bond while Robert is taken on as driver and trusted henchman to Victor. It’s Robert who negotiates meetings between Victor and the menacing cartel that wants a piece of his online success. Meanwhile, Robert’s police superior (Rosa Enskat) is growing increasingly impatient and wanting to see something happen.
She’s not the only one; once the connections between the two couples have intensified, the film seems to settle into a holding pattern as Robert undergoes a slow emotional, psychological and professional meltdown. Meanwhile Leni, who is prone to going AWOL despite the ankle tag that is supposed to restrict her movements, holes up in a hotel away from her volatile admirer.
The drama benefits from ingenious complexity with its themes. The question of performance, relating both to gender identity and to the police operation, yields a weave of ambiguities regarding who is deceiving whom, and who is genuinely experiencing the feelings that they’re supposedly faking. Trans actor Ehre emerges most compellingly from this intrigue, making supposed stooge Leni a much more canny player than we at first suspect, and much less controllable than Robert at first imagines. It just feels a little frustrating that she disappears from the action for considerable stretches, while the film focuses on Robert’s tough guy genre moves.
Unfortunately, neither the character of Robert nor Ziegler’s fairly unrestrained performance really convince: at the start, Robert tells his boss that Leni is unreliable, “a ticking time bomb”, but he’s the one who goes off the rails more than once, and the presentation of Robert as a lank-haired, on-the-edge bohemian heavy feels over-baked. Meanwhile, Romanian actress Iacub impresses with a playfully acerbic character that we don’t see enough of.
One problem is that before we reach the promised end of the night, we’ve been lost in too many unfocused uncertainties, with the cop drama and the investigation of the laws of desire never quite gelling together, often a problem with this kind of genre deconstruction. And, while Hochhäusler deliberately keeps his narrative on the minimalist side, with few players, it’s hard to credit that Victor and Nicole, who seem to have few associates around them, accept their new friends’ presence so quickly, notwithstanding Victor’s suspicious questions. The auteur approach to genre means that films like this don’t need to go to Hollywood thriller lengths to cement plausibility; still, causes, effects and motivations don’t feel quite as rigorously tied up here as they might be.
Nevertheless, Hochhäusler and DoP Reinhold Vorschneider bring a tense, elegant moodiness to the darkness-cloaked Frankfurt locations, with a stylistic leitmotif of slow lateral camera crawls and pans. A felicitous touch is a soundtrack of vintage German songs, beginning with a silkily string-laden 60s number sung by Heidi Brühl, and including such bygone divas as Zarah Leander and Hildegarde Knef.