“Four Minutes” was inspired by a single photograph of an 80-year-old woman who worked as a piano teacher in a women’s prison. She sat at her instrument, her hands placed lightly on the keys, and filmmaker Chris Kraus was struck by the contrast between her old, ravaged face and youthful, elegant hands. This was a woman who had not let age completely overtake her, and the astonishing beauty of her hands were a testament to years of intense dedication to her craft.

In “Four Minutes” (“4-Funkan no Pianist” in Japan) the woman comes to life as imagined by Kraus, and she proudly professes that “music is the only thing that interests me.” She’s therefore fearless (but not necessarily invulnerable) of solitude and alienation — the cost of a life without human intimacy. The only things she asks or accepts from people now are respect and politeness. Played by one of German cinema’s most treasured actresses, Monica Bleibtreu (who sank her features into layers of old-age makeup to play a woman 20 years her senior), Traude Kruger — the pianist — is a pillar of severity and restraint who navigates the dark, dreary corridors of the prison in heavy skirts and ugly shoes.

In the opening scenes, we see her deploying two young thugs (she doesn’t care who they are, as long as they don’t damage the piano) to transport a grand piano into the prison; the old one had been destroyed and she has had to replace it with her own money. “I haven’t been paid a salary in three years,” she says to smooth-talking prison warden Meyerbeer (Stefan Kurt), who claims that piano lessons are unnecessary. But you can tell she intends to teach piano to the prisoners for the rest of her days, and it’s not about salary or reputation but a basic, physical need. She needs that piano in her place of work.

Four Minutes
Director Chris Kraus
Run Time 115 minutes
Language German
Opens Opens Nov. 10, 2007

One afternoon Kruger spies something that sends her into shivers. At an in-house funeral service (one of the prisoners had killed herself), she’s playing a harmonium and on the overhead mirror sees that one of the prisoners is playing out the exact same notes as herself, but on the back of the chapel bench. Eyes closed and body swaying like quirky Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, the young prisoner is clearly familiar with the music — a piano sonata by Mozart — and Kruger senses the rich, sensual technique of her playing. The aged piano teacher becomes determined to get to know this woman, get her to play and put her in a place where she truly belongs: the place where music matters and nothing else.

It’s never that easy. From start to finish it’s a perpetual clashing of two ferocious egos, each working out their inner demons on the grand piano. The young woman, Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung in a stunning performance), is barely in her early 20s and is serving a 20-year prison term for murdering her boyfriend’s father. She slouches, swears like a trucker, doesn’t wash and chain-smokes. Her hands are scarred and ugly from smashing people’s faces in. Her latest victim is a shy, music-loving prison guard (Sven Pipig) who idolizes Kruger and is resentful of Jenny’s time with the teacher. But Kruger cares little about his or Jenny’s emotions, however warped and angry they may be. “I can help you be a good pianist,” Kruger says to Jenny. “But I can’t help you be a better person. I’m not interested in that.” So begins their sessions together, with Jenny displaying her considerable talents (in one scene she plays with both her hands cuffed and her back to the piano) while Kruger listens and instructs. But their relationship is tempestuous and thorny, and the lessons are often interrupted by violent outbursts that land Jenny in straitjackets and solitary confinement.

Kruger is a good match for Jenny. She never uses her age or seniority to combat the young woman’s ungovernable rages and adamantly tries to confine their relations within the all-important realm of music. It’s only when the pair gradually come to understand each other that Kruger makes an attempt at discovering Jenny’s past, or revealing her own tragic secret.

Kruger and Jenny could have forged a pseudo Helen Keller/Anne Sullivan relationship (the real-life celebrated pupil-teacher bond that brought a blind, deaf and mute girl to international fame), but Jenny is far too prickly and untamed to fall completely under her mentor’s sway. In the end, violence and despair still hang over their piano like a poisonous fog but there’s a glorious moment of redemption — four to be exact — that shine into the movie like sunlight into a prison cell. Jenny’s performance at this point seems charged by 1,000 kw of electrical current sparked from her immediate and magical connection to the music, the sheer impact of which will leave you gasping.

The weeks’ other films:
Ten Ten: A funny old road to perdition
Vacancy: Another bump in the night

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