“A couple grapples with the difficult, lingering trauma of a sexual assault and must work out how to live with that crime, themselves, and each other, in director Sven Taddicken’s intense and emotional dramatic thriller.”
Kerri Craddock, Toronto International Filmfestival 2018
Cast: Maximilian Brückner, Luise Heyer, Leonard Kunz, Jasna Fritzi Bauer, Florian Bartholomäi, u.a.
Filmfest Hamburg 2018: Main Prize – German Competition (Produzentenpreis)
34e Festival International du Film de Mons 2019: Grand Prix + Prix de l’interpretation
33o Bolzano Filmfestival: Premio al miglior film
German Film Awards 2019: Nomination for Luise Heyer as best main actress
Achtung Berlin 2019: best actor: Leonard Kunz
Love is folly – Varna 2019: best actor: Maximilian Brückner + Special Prize of the Jury
“It starts with a rape. I won’t lie: I sighed thinking Sven Taddicken’s The Most Beautiful Couple was going to end up another drama about coping and retribution like most others wherein Liv (Luise Heyer) struggles as Malte (Maximilian Brückner) protects. So it was a welcome surprise when we’re moved past this harrowing prologue to meet the couple two years later working, smiling, and possibly healed in a bid to forget. Not only that, but Liv proves the one who wants to celebrate upon returning home from her final therapy session. She’s the one who’s ready to officially begin this next chapter of their lives while Malte is left stuck in his head — guilty, embarrassed, and impotent.
Taddicken isn’t averse to the complexities of the situation as presented or the psychological issues that arise from it. Liv and Malte were on vacation, had sex on the beach, and discovered three young men had been watching. They laugh it off and return to their cottage only to find those boys had followed behind. Two are just in it for the scare, but Sascha (Leonard Kunz) can’t contain his sense of malice. By the end Malte is cut and hogtied with Liv immovable on the floor — both unclothed and silent as their attackers run off into the darkness. It’s a shared experience for the couple and a true example of strength falling prey to futility. And the aftereffects aren’t to be easily shaken or free from anger.
Later in the film Liv speaks truth by contrasting their current situations. She admits they were in it together during the attack — both helpless to do anything to stop their assailants and absolutely beholden to their whims. But things are different now. He wasn’t raped. He doesn’t wear the same scars as her and therefore doesn’t get to dictate how she should feel or what they should do to overcome the pain. So when Malte happens to run into Sascha after so much time had passed, Liv rightfully denounces his actions. Her husband follows this man home to ultimately bring him back into their lives just when he’d almost disappeared. And it wasn’t for her benefit. His fear and shame drives him, a desire to reclaim his masculinity.
This is what sets The Most Beautiful Couple apart from other films tackling similar subject matter. It acknowledges the toxicity of our human reactions to trauma. Liv confronts the notion that she wanted to apologize for what happened, to forgive because she hoped her attacker felt remorse in his heart. And Malte wants to restore a lost sense of power. The man who made exhibitionists out of them on the beach suddenly found it difficult to make love with his wife at home, constantly thinking he’d been defeated by this stranger and needed to somehow prove himself. We watch as both become emboldened from knowing Sascha’s whereabouts and devastated at the same time. They mustn’t respond selfishly, though. If they do, they must become aware of the other’s needs too.
So rather than have a revenge film pitting Liv and Malte against the specter of what Sascha is to them and who he is in private (with Jasna Fritzi Bauer’s Jenny as his girlfriend), Taddicken builds internal conflict within their minds. Sascha becomes a lightning rod that forces them to talk about that which they’ve yet to shed despite what they may have told each other. We receive warped dreams of a romantic nature from Liv as she reconciles what was done to her and taken away. Malte is shown in a boxing ring unleashing his frustration on a sparring partner because he’s unsure of what he can or will do to the object of his rage. Will this abrupt reminder of their horror strengthen or break them?
The responses are authentic in how they surprise us by going against the Hollywood norm. So often these characters don’t know what they are going to do until the moment they act. Nothing is premeditated besides the curiosity. Malte wants to know where he can find Sascha. Liv wants to believe that he does actually exist so close to where they live. They watch each other from afar with this unspeakable tragedy binding the trio together, compiling information to use as weaponry for what’s more or less a situation of mutually assured destruction. And we see who they are when they’re backs are against the wall without backup. Who will show remorse and restraint? Who will instinctively act against best interests to take his/her pound of flesh?
Brückner and Heyer are unforgettable. The way he smirks when uncomfortable displays a deep-seeded contempt that predicts an explosion and how she uses the tools taught by her therapist to confront her feelings and not back down when his actions demean her sense of agency are inspiring. They’re working through a nightmare that would always nag at the back of their consciousness — one that already does as evidenced by an early misfire in romance. Until Sascha comes back to the forefront of their minds, they’re held in a prison that makes what happened an excuse to try too hard or not enough. The conflict therefore deals with what his reappearance brings. Will it confirm that forgetting is best or that punishment is their one chance for closure?
There’s no binary answer and both will stumble as they work towards their personal truths, but eventually a choice will have to be made. Eventually they’ll have to either go their separate ways upon realizing their love is just as much a reminder of that night as Sascha or quite literally implode their present selves to be born anew — emotional skin shed once and for all. It could honestly go both directions right up until the end and I wouldn’t have bought the drama or catharsis any other way. Actions have consequences and vengeance only continues the cycle in a forever-escalating manner of viciousness. What seems fruitful can backfire and you’ll never know until the fire is felt. Taddicken is willing to sacrifice everyone for the story’s truth.”
Jared Mobarak, The Film Stage 2018
“A rape drama is not the kind of film you look forward to seeing. Yet The Most Beautiful Couple is one you will be glad you saw, and a well-made film all around. Liv and Malte, two young married teachers, are viciously attacked by three youths, Liv raped and Malte forced to watch, helplessly. Years later, the couple and the rapist cross paths again and a cat-and-mouse game begins that reopens the wounds.
The first 10 minutes of the film are filled with anxiety, threat, violence, humiliation, degradation, despair. Writer-director Sven Taddicken spares the couple and the viewers nothing but the opening is necessary to understand the next 80 minutes. Then the real story, the relationship drama and the recovering begins. How do you have a (somewhat normal) life or relationship or sex after, despite what happened to you? How do you make sense of senseless crime? Not new questions, but Taddicken and his outstanding actors —first and foremost Luise Heyer (in Dark at TIFF17), and Maximilian Brueckner— approach it carefully, delicately and thoughtfully. It is not an easy film to get right but they do so largely from the opening scene to the astounding ending.
“How can a song get stuck in your head although you hate it?” music teacher Malte asks his high school students two years after the fateful chance encounter, still loving, living and working with Liv. But we sense the occasional underlying hesitation, caution, thought, doubt that permeates their daily routine.
Without giving away any plot twists, the film is not merely a psychological drama, it veers enough into a revenge thriller to keep you on edge the entire time. Reminiscent of Philip Groening’s work (The Police Officer’s Wife; My Brother’s Name is Robert and He is an Idiot) in its uncomfortable intensity and taboo breaking, Taddicken’s film is still more watchable and less formally experimental than a Groening, which is not to say that it does not feature even-handed camera work (I later read that the entire film was, unusually, shot on one standard lens) and supportive sound design. Taddicken might be largely unknown in North America –he was nominated for a Student Oscar in 2000–, but is a mid-career director in his home country Germany, successful over the past decade with Emma’s Bliss and Original Bliss. From his titles alone you can deduct that Taddicken is interested in happiness and how much or how little of it we get. This TIFF world premiere might put him on a larger map.
I was most impressed by how Taddicken dealt with the inherent gender question around rape. The creative team manages to believably portray the couple as victims of the attack, each as a human being suffering and struggling and looking for explanations and a way forward, together as well as each in their own way. There is a beautiful core scene at the kitchen table where Liv spells out what’s at stake in their lives with this trauma. How much do you tell whom when? How much do you tell each other, how much do you lock away, are the more intimate questions that come up as Liv jokingly reports she is “officially healed” after therapy. Fear, suppression, self-accusation, guilt, a sense of responsibility (to report in order to prevent other rapes) keep creeping up on them, and their hands are forced again when the rapist reappears. Inserting the rapist figure into the recovery story not just as a plot-mover is a challenge, but one that mostly rings true, thanks largely to fearless actor Leonard Kunz (soon to be seen in Das Boot).
We get a strong and urgent sense of the unfairness of it all, while Liv and Malte are so valiantly and openly fighting the injustice they experienced and doing everything right: therapy, talking, checking in with the police, dancing/singing/boxing to regain a sense of control over their lives. The way Taddicken and the actors (and the camera) let us into the couple’s lives gets scarily close — Liv and Malte could be us, so how would we react, how would we feel, what would we do?
Perhaps their biggest issue is that they left a few crucial feelings until the very end: anger, grief, and a sort of liberating acceptance of non-closure.
It might sound strange but The Most Beautiful Couple is a tentatively hopeful, strangely positive, and certainly resilient film that does not try to analyse things away and never rings false (nor does it give false hope). The Most Beautiful Couple is the most beautiful couple, caring, connected, circling back to each other through the fog, willing to walk 500 miles and 500 more, as The Proclaimers’ song in the film goes. The final scene is one big bold allegory of marriage, renewal and life force.”
Here’s an interview that I did with myself, in preparation for the Toronto-world premiere:
This is the first time you directed a film that you wrote yourself. What made you choose this story?
The premise of ‘The Most Beautiful Couple’ felt like a worst-case scenario for any loving couple. It was like a nightmare that kept haunting my thoughts. So I finally sat down and started to think it through, while wondering, if there is a cure for that couple. I guess it’s that same energy that kept me writing that also keeps the audience tied to the film.
What were the biggest challenges in the entire making of the film?
The very first scene, the assault, was a big challenge to me, the actors and the crew. It was also the very first scene that we shot, because I wanted the actors to know what they were talking about, when they refer to the assault later in the film. They agreed to this idea.
Shooting the scene then turned out to be astonishingly smooth, because everybody had a lot of respect for each other. We rehearsed the scene several times. And the DOP and I were aware of every camera and character movement before we started shooting. So nothing was left to chance, which gave the actors the security to be insecure in the scene.
I’ve experienced this before: when everybody, including me, is scared of a certain scene, everybody prepares well, and is often full of empathy. It’s the less important scenes, that are often harder to shoot. Or those when you don’t manage to find the time to rehearse and prepare yourself.
Does ‘The Most Beautiful Couple’ refer to something you’ve experienced personally?
I’ve never been involved in a sexual assault – no. Fortunately not. Though it is my duty as a storyteller to put myself in the position of every character involved. The scene that actually refers to my personal life is the fight in the kitchen between Malte und Liv, when Liv says that Malte would be a real man if he’d never told her about meeting the rapist again. This scene is basically a re-write of a terrible fight I once had right before a breakup. The subject of that fight was not a rapist, of course. It was about something completely different. But to this day I feel the pain of hurting someone by telling the truth. And that’s something that is emotionally very confusing. It took me a long time to realize, that for a strong relationship, what’s necessary is two people who are willing and able to stand the truth.
Maximilian Brückner, Luise Heyer and also Leonard Kunz are exceptional. How did you find the actors and how did you work with them?
Yes, they are amazing. Simone Bär, the casting director, introduced me to every one of them. They all fell in love with the script and their characters and they trusted me, which was a great gift. They got involved in the making of the film to the extent that Luise actually wrote her dialogue for the therapy scenes herself, and Maximilian even came up with the idea for the very last scene, when the couple destroys their living room. I don’t think I have a special directing technique. But I love actors who are willing to relate to their characters so much, that they can even surprise me with ‘the truth about my script’.
Is it true that the film was only shot on one lens? Why is that and what was the idea behind this unusual camera concept?
Yes. Daniela Knapp, the DOP, had once approached me with the idea of shooting a whole film with just one lens. I immediately thought that this would be a great visual concept for TMBC. We used a normal lens (50mm anamorphic), that approximately matches the radius of the human eye.
TMBC has a very story-driven plot. Making the film felt a lot like ‘just’ following the characters through their story. There was no need to enhance certain moments visually or to make them more accessible in any way. You are also tied to the locations somehow, because there is no real chance to change the mood visually. We wanted the viewer to be in the ‘here and now’ And when our images seemed not interesting enough, there was generally something wrong with the story or the location. So we had to fix it.
Relationships and intimacy seem to be elements in a number of your works — are you attracted to stories of human connection?
For sure. I guess a question that drives me is: Do I deserve love? Or do ‘we’ deserve love?
It’s the same question that drives Max, the shy car salesman from ‘Emma’s Bliss’ or the mentally handicapped Josch in ‘My Brother the Vampire’ (aka ‘Getting My Brother Laid). The characters I’m interested in are often in need of love and are unsure if they are permitted to receive it. In TMBC it would be: Do I deserve love, even though I wasn’t able to protect my partner?
Do you believe in revenge?
When Malte and Liv go after the rapist in the end of the film, and Liv actually stabs him with a knife, I see this as a moment of tragedy, because they both come to betray their beliefs while trying to find a better solution. When they hug each other and cry, after they have taken him to the hospital, it is a moment of hope, because they are finally aware of their entangled and overwhelming emotions and dare to share them with each other.
In how far do you feel this is a film that reflects the #MeToo movement?
#metoo is a complex movement, which – as I understand it – demands awareness of the misuse of power between the sexes. I wrote the first draft of the script between 2011 and 2013, before I was aware of #metoo. So, technically speaking, my project is not a reflection of the movement. But I had noticed a term that was used often, and that I can relate to very much, and that’s ‘toxic masculinity’…
During writing I ‘had’ to watch a lot of films dealing with sexual assaults. And I realized that often a sexual assault is followed by the death of the victim. It’s the widower then, who transcends the experience by becoming an avenger or even actually a superhero. I wanted to show something very different. I wanted to show a woman who is very much alive. Liv wants to live, she wants a relationship and she struggles with her own feelings of shame and guilt. And she confronts her man, who is just about to step into the lonesome-avenger-cliché, which I would say is an example of toxic masculinity.