You may have heard French lounge cover act Nouvelle Vague‘s version of Eisbär, but nothing beats the original 1981 Grauzone version of the song, a Neue Deutsche Welle hit in 1981. At least that’s what I thought until I saw Valeska Grisebach‘s Sehnsucht (Longing), in which a German small-town couple plays it on their dinky keyboard after dinner. In their incapable hands, the song’s NDW ironic reserve (this is the period that brought us Trio’s “Da Da Da“) turns into real heartache that perfectly encapsulates the movie’s mood of awkward tragedy.

Like Christian Petzold and Robert Thalheim, Valeska Grisebach gets lumped into the Neue Berliner Schule — and I guess I just did it, too. Movement or not, every film by these directors that I’ve managed to catch so far has been outstanding. Sehnsucht, the story of an ill-fated love affair between a locksmith and a waitress cast with non-professional actors and set in a tiny village, feels absolutely lifelike. The characters and the tired, cliche-ridden things they say in hopeless attempts of bridging the gaps between them are depressingly real and instantly familiar to anybody who has spent any time in small-town Germany. Bold direction and editing add an artful dimension to the sparse, elegant story. There’s a fantastic sequence involving a Robbie Williams song, and then there’s that Eisbär.

Sehnsucht. Valeska Grisebach, 2006. ****

This post is dedicated to the polar bear at the Central Park Zoo, who swims laps tirelessly to everybody’s endless delight. Too bad about that whole warming thing.