Jonathan is a young man stuck on his family’s farm in rural Germany, where he must not only ensure the animals are cared for, but also look after his dying father, Burghardt. He dreams of possibly having something else, but feels the obligations weighing upon him. One bright spot emerges in the form of a romance with his dad’s nurse, Anka, but even that can’t hide the problems.
The issues aren’t just that Jonathan’s father is extremely sick. His aunt lives next door, but won’t speak to his father and won’t say why. Jonathan also wants to know more about his mother, who died when he was young, but his taciturn father finds it almost impossible to open up.
Then a man called Ron shows up, who Jonathan’s aunt seems to want to get rid of, but who Burghardt is happy to see. Jonathan has no idea who this man is, but it slowly becomes clear that Ron and Burghardt have a history and may once have been lovers. When Jonathan realises what’s going on and what this may mean about his mother and father’s relationship, he doesn’t know what to do, especially as his life has become dedicated to caring for a man who may have been lying to him for years.
The debut feature from Piotr J. Lewandowski has a lot going for it, but also suffers from some of the problems a lot of first movies do. It’s a movie that cares a lot about its characters and wants the best for them, creating a strong picture of a man trapped between his desires and obligations, but whose need to know more about his parents past leads to places he never expected. Likewise, Burghardt is an interesting character, as while the fact he’s dying creates empathy, for much of the movie he floats between being the hero and villain of the piece, both in terms of whether there’s a selfishness about his relationship with his son, and also whether he was rather cruel in the past.
However, there’s a feeling that for what is essentially a character study, it’s not getting quite far enough under the skin of its participants. That’s most apparent early on, when it’s not clear where the film is going, and tends to feel like a lot of things are happening for no clear reason. While a reason emerges as the movie goes on, for the first half hour you’re more likely to be wondering why so many scenes seem unconnected from one another, and why Jonathan seems allergic to shirts (an allergy that oddly clears up soon afterwards).
Once it finds its feet the movie improves markedly, and there’s a genuine emotion to the struggle to find true connection and catharsis between a group of family members who find expressing their feelings incredibly difficult. Even here though there are a few issues, most notably a lack of subtlety when the film decides that drama is called for. That’s particularly noticeable when Jonathan decides it’s time to be angry about everything, with both the script and director pushing things a little too far so that he spends a full 15 minutes running around being furious about everything, with little sensitivity about exactly what emotions he’s dealing with.
For brief moment it takes things so far that it falls full tilt into melodrama and verges on being unintentionally funny. That’s particularly true with a scene between Jonathan and his aunt when things get physical, which comes across as forced and rather silly. And when I say physical, I do intend the incestuous edge that implies, which is something that happens a few times in the film. I don’t think it’s intentional, just that in trying to show the connections between the family members, it takes things a tiny bit further than they need to go, doing things that would probably work in the theatre but that in cinema give things slightly different connotations. That’s not too much of a problem though, it’s just evidence of a film that knows that less is often more, but isn’t sure how far it should go when hidden feelings finally boil over.
Even with those problems, it’s a very watchable film, helped by a sweet, contained performance by Jannis Niewöhner as Jonathan. Although the character gets a little close to being a total prick during his angry phase, around that he elicits a real feeling of empathy. He is a young man trying to do his best, even though there’s a danger he may be trapping himself in the family cycle of living a life he doesn’t fully want.
There’s also a real emotion to Burghardt’s reunion with Ron, with the film doing a great job of showing the sadness of what the dying man has missed out on and what he might have had, smartly mixing that with the knowledge that he does love the son he would never have had if he’d lived a gay life from his earliest youth.
Overall Verdict: Although it has a few problems, Jonathan is still an intriguing family drama. It has a few issues handling it emotions, but pulls through with good performances and interesting character dynamics.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac