German Queer Crime Romance  

For a film that hinges on deceptions, betrayals and unexpected allegiances, Till the End of the Night is alarmingly low on intrigue. Christoph Hochhäusler’s crime drama revolves around an undercover cop paired with a trans woman on early prison release to infiltrate an online drug distribution network, their smokescreen relationship tested by his lingering feelings for the person she was before transitioning. That would seem to provide a promising foundation to explore the tricky lines of gender identity and the twisty byways of love. But this unpersuasive mishmash of melodrama and suspense never builds any steam, meaning it doesn’t work in either mode.

Hochhäusler comes from the Berlin School, the new German cinema movement of the mid-1990s and early 2000s that spawned arthouse directors including Christian Petzold and Angela Schanelec, both of whom also have new films in the Berlinale’s main competition this year. The filmmakers grouped under that banner are only loosely affiliated, but to the extent that they do share a signature style, it could probably be described as aesthetically driven, psychologically probing realism.

Till the End of the Night

The Bottom Line

Not worth investigating.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Timocin Ziegler, Thea Ehre, Michael Sideris, Ioana Iacob, Rosa Enskat, Aenne Schwarz, Gottfried Breitfuß, Sahin Eryilmaz, Ronald Kukulies
Director: Christoph Hochhäusler
Florian Plumeyer

2 hours 3 minutes

Only one part of that applies to Till the End of the Night, which slaps on the gritty textures of neo-noir and strikes the requisite genre poses, but seldom provides much emotional access to its characters. They talk about their feelings, or more often fight about them, but they somehow never really put across the knotty, deep-rooted romantic ties that make their professional masquerade of a relationship so fraught with complications.

Florian Plumeyer’s screenplay is so busy elaborating on the lies necessary to gain the trust of the protagonists’ criminal target that the truth becomes too vague to care about.

The opening credits roll over the transformation of an empty apartment in a cool time-lapse sequence. This will become the home of scuzzy-looking undercover cop Robert (Timocin Ziegler), who appears to have gone to the Fassbinder school of personal grooming, and his willowy trans girlfriend Leni (Thea Ehre). She has been granted conditional release halfway through her two-year drug sentence in order to help the police nail online dealer Victor (Michael Sideris), whose legit business front is nightclubs. Despite putting on a mostly convincing show as lovebirds during Leni’s surprise welcome-home party, Robert reminds her of the deal by fitting her ankle monitor the minute the guests have left.

Back before she transitioned, when she was still going by her birthname Lenard, Leni worked as a sound engineer for Victor’s record label, a past association that the cops hope will help facilitate access. After repeatedly hitting a wall in their investigation, the detective unit led by flinty Monika Sterz (Aenne Schwarz) has now determined that the only way to get to Victor is from inside his organization.

Leni and Robert sign up for dance classes as a way of getting close to Victor, whose weekly cha-cha lessons are a kind of couples therapy to save his rocky relationship with Nic (Ioana Iacob). It doesn’t take Victor long to figure out why Leni seems familiar, but it’s her instant girlfriend rapport with Nic that provides an in. Pretty soon they’re double-dating, and when Leni confides in Victor that Robert needs a job, the drug dealer hires him as his driver.

All this is reasonably lucid if never terribly compelling in Plumeyer’s frustrating script. But attempts to plant tension by having Victor sniff around the holes in Leni and Robert’s backstory go nowhere. And despite reasonably solid performances from the leads, especially trans actress Ehre as Leni, the characters never really grab you.

The conflict stirred up in Robert over his sexuality — he eventually faces the truth that he loved the guy but is uncomfortable loving the woman — is notably thin. The depth of his feelings registers less than his insensitivity when he brutishly goes for Leni’s crotch while they’re making out, even though she’s clearly uncomfortable being touched there. A late-breaking Dog Day Afternoon-type plot thread in which Robert starts talking about paying for Leni’s gender confirmation surgery also feels half-cooked.

Plot developments in the baggy second hour become increasingly wayward. While Sterz makes it clear she’s getting impatient for results, the filmmakers seem to have missed that memo.

Robert makes himself indispensable to Victor when a major player on the narcotics landscape dispatches his goons to send a message, and then the undercover cop serves as the go-between, brokering a deal to split the pie. But even as the police start closing in on their objective, the investigation fails to gather momentum. Nor does the volatile relationship between Robert and Leni invite much involvement as they bust apart and are pulled back together repeatedly. Having Victor be the one to encourage Robert to commit earns points for going against expectations, but the whole protracted wrap-up is so messily handled it’s ineffectual.

It was a nice touch to have Leni’s desire to be a singer echoed in an eclectic soundtrack stuffed with German vocal tracks, ranging from 1930s and ‘40s torch songs through bouncy ‘60s pop to contemporary punk, and a closing note on her freedom at least brings some belated thematic cohesion. Elsewhere, the craft elements add surface sheen but not much style, and some of the fussy camerawork is just distracting. There’s possibly a good story buried in here, but the filmmakers can’t get out of their own way long enough to tell it.

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