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Review: The City Below You (2010)

Director: Christoph Hochhäusler | 110 minutes | drama | Actors: Robert Hunger-Bühler, Nicolette Krebitz, Mark Waschke, Wolfgang Böck, Corinna Kirchhoff, Michael Abendroth, Angelika Bartsch, André Dietz, Paul Faßnacht, Alexandra Finder, Piet Fuchs, Stefan Gebelhoff, Johannes Kiebranz, Antje Lewald, Viola Pobitschka, Stefan Preiss, Robert Schupp, Nadja Stübiger, Heike Trinker, Van Lam Vissay, Alexandra von Schwerin, Klaus Zmorek, Oliver Broumis, Frank Voß, Julia Domenica,

Clinical with a slightly mysterious undertone about an affair between a bank manager and the wife of one of his employees. The two protagonists are absolutely evenly matched: the ruthless banker Roland Cortes (Robert Hunger-Bühler) and the opportunistic Svenja (Nicolette Krebitz) play with fire when they start an affair that seems to be based mainly on lust. Gradually it turns out that their mutual attraction is not only based on lust, but that they recognize the same traits of each other. Both are manipulative, want what they see, and are willing to lie and cheat in order to achieve their goals. Perhaps that is the explanation why Svenja is willing to risk her – apparently – loving relationship with her husband Oliver (Max Waschke) for the older Roland, but the film sometimes also hides other hints. Both have things to hide from their past: Svenja lies about her resume, Roland comes up with false childhood memories. Did it once start out as a game, but become habitual over the years?

‘Unter dir die Stadt’ does not provide easy answers, but it does raise questions. It works for a long time, but as the playing time continues, it more and more resembles a trick of the makers. However, the actors ensure that the does not derail, but still remains fascinating. After Svenja’s initial refusal to join the affair, Roland manages to use his top executive position to send her husband Oliver to Indonesia. Oliver thinks he has been promoted, but what he does not know (yet) is already known to the viewer: his predecessor was kidnapped and murdered there because of the business that the bank does in the Asian country. With this Roland goes a lot further than just avoiding his “rival”: he places Oliver in a position where he may be in physical danger. This premise is strongly reminiscent of the Biblical story of King David, who seduced Bathsheba and placed her soldier Uriah at the forefront of the battles with the Ammonites. Although the plot ends differently in this film, the parallels are present.

The Frankfurt am Main, where the is set, has been portrayed coldly as a city of glass and concrete, without a soul, where everything revolves around (earning) money. The business deal that part of the subplot revolves around, however, does not seem to interest director Hochhäusler that much (despite the fact that he himself wrote the screenplay with Ulrich Pletzer), so that the story tilts too much towards the affair between Roland and Svenja. As a result, things have to be straightened out too abruptly if Roland’s business problems surrounding the deal become more important towards the end. Hochhäusler does manage to visualize everything visually. With this beautiful camerawork, strong non-verbal scenes and of course the acting talent of Hunger-Bühler and Krebitz, Hochhäusler manages to compensate for the weaknesses in the screenplay. ‘Unter dir die Stadt’ mainly succeeds in evoking a certain atmosphere, whereby the viewer mainly gets the feeling that the characters are above all lonely. In any case, alienated enough from their surroundings, at Roland for longer and at Svenja especially after Oliver left.

This is where the previously touched also comes to the surface. Quite a few questions remain unanswered. Some viewers will find that annoying, but the makers still know how to make it intriguing. For example, there are a number of strange events, which do not fit into the bigger picture, which underline Svenja’s impulsiveness (such as the careless acceptance of a pill by a woman in the toilet of a restaurant) and Roland’s sometimes irrational behavior (such as watching a drug addict injects). In any case, it seems irrational, because it is never explicitly stated why. Not to mention the alienating final scene, about which many speculations are possible. The thus remains partly a mystery, because the events and motives of the protagonists cannot or hardly be interpreted.

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