Film Review: ‘The Tower,’ a Family and a Regime Come Undone

By Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com
November 6, 2014 Updated: November 15, 2014

By the 1980s, most East Germans realized that if they hadn’t finished building socialism by now, they never would. Dr. Richard Hoffmann sort of got the picture, but there were blind spots in his understanding.

For instance, he does not recognize that the pleasant—dare we say bourgeoisie—nature of his Dresden “Tower” neighborhood necessarily makes him somewhat suspect.

Unfortunately, his son will become intimately acquainted with the GDR’s hypocrisy and vindictiveness in Christian Schwochow’s “The Tower.”

Article Quote: 'The Tower,' a Family and a Regime Come Undone

Based on Uwe Tellkamp’s prize-winning novel, “The Tower” was original produced as a three-hour German television miniseries that Music Box Films will release on VOD, along with the two-hour (on the dot) American theatrical version. We have only seen the latter, but there are no gaping holes apparent, suggesting they used a scalpel worthy of Dr. Hoffmann at the peak of his powers rather than Harvey Weinstein’s meat cleaver.

Dr. Hoffmann is indeed rather pleased with his situation in 1982. He will be the recipient of a prestigious medical award and is widely seen as the likely successor to the clinic’s fuddy-duddy director.

Somehow, he is successfully juggling his career and a family life with his wife Anne and his underachieving son Christian, while secretly keeping house with his mistress Josta Fischer and their illegitimate daughter.

However, publically reprimanding an incompetent doctor with close ties to the central committee is not a smart strategy for promotion. In fact, it is the beginning of the end.

Dr. Richard Hoffman (Jan Josef Liefers) finds himself in a catch-22 with the GDR in
Dr. Richard Hoffman (Jan Josef Liefers) finds himself in a catch-22 with the GDR in “The Tower.” (Music Box Films)

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Hoffmann is visited by the Stasi. Out of youthful ideological zeal, he agreed to be an informer during his student days, but tried to forget the old arrangement as he became disillusioned by reality. They now expect him to renew his snitching duties.

Of course, the Stasi knows all about his secret life. They also have a damning report he submitted on his best friend and longtime professional colleague. Dr. Hoffmann tries to stall and prevaricate, but his position becomes increasingly sticky when Christian runs into the sort of ideological trouble at school that could permanently ruin his future.

There is something fundamentally appealing about a film that starts with Hoffmann and his cronies stealing Christmas trees literally tagged for privileged Party apparatchiks.

While Schwochow largely skips over familiar issues of shortages and privations because of the characters’ relatively well-to-do standing, he vividly portrays the everyday duality of GDR life. Whenever the Hoffmanns need to have a serious discussion, they invite each other for a walk. When they do speak, ostensibly neutral code-words are peppered throughout their discourse.

As the Job-like Dr. Hoffmann undone by a ruthless state and his own moral failings, Dresden-born Jan Josef Liefers is riveting like car crash. It is a thoroughly grounded performance, but it takes on classically tragic dimensions.

Yet, it is Claudia Michelsen who really anchors the film with her quiet authority. Frankly, there is not a lot of room for Streep-ish histrionics in “The Tower,” because that was an indulgence East Berliners could not afford.

Schwochow actually has two films opening this weekend in New York. “West” more fully explores the challenges of immigration frequently alluded to in “The Tower,” but the Hoffman family saga has considerably more heft and bite.

Both are recommended, but if time only allows for one, it should be “The Tower.” It takes a hard, honest look at what statism does to people, while pulling audiences into a sweeping Cold War drama.

Highly recommended, the theatrical version of “The Tower” opens this Friday, Nov. 7, in New York at the Cinema Village, whereas “West” opens at Anthology Film Archives.

 

‘The Tower’ (‘Der Turm’)
Director: Christian Schwochow
Starring: Jan Josef Liefers, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Klaus Bieligk, Martin Bruchmann
Running time: 2 hours
Release date: Nov. 7
Not rated

3.5 stars out of 5

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com

Joe Bendel
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com