Dir: Killian Riedhof | Cast: Paula Beer, Bekim Latifi, Damian Hardung, Joel Basman | Germany Drama 121′
This horrifying wartime tragedy kicks off in good spirits. In a Berlin nightclub to dazzling strains of Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing Sing Sing’ the harried main character Stella is an aspiring jazz singer only just facing up to the unspeakable terrors of her hometown under Nazi rule.
The daytime sees her slaving away in a garment factory where the Jewish workers are one day rounded up and shot. But Stella, based on the real life of Stella Goldschlag, is determined not to end her life in Auschwitz. In fact, so determined, that she would go on to betray her fellow Jews, some of them close friends, to the Gestapo, just to salvage her own dreams.
Looking wan and washed out for her gruelling role, Paula Beer turns in another dynamite performance as a highly suggestible woman on the brink whose life is turned upside down when she refuses to submit to the constraints of being a Jew in Nazi Germany just when her musical career is starting to take off.
Hounded, questioned and subjected to continuous scrutiny, Stella and her parents are forced into hiding where she realises the only way to survive is to play a double game. But that will have consequences for the brittle blue-eyed anti-heroine – who is both victim and perpetrator – as she tries desperately to juggle her life with various powerful protagonists in a bid to avoid deportation to Auschwitz. Sadly her story turns into a nightmarish maelstrom of torture, duplicity – and ultimately guilt.
With its febrile tone and intense pacing Stella. A Life conjures up the palpable fear and very real trauma Nazi Germany instils in its Jewish population in 1944 and shows how ordinary people are capable of evil, in certain circumstances. Some of the set pieces are truly harrowing. particularly a scene where Stella is picked up by her hair, and brutally kicked in the head during an interrogation. Riedhof certainly knows how to create atmosphere but his script suffers from an under-developed storyline, and Stella’s descent into evil is never convincingly realised in a thriller that gradually gives way to sensationalism with a series of traumatic interludes, rather than a cohesive narrative.
Stella. A Life is an effective exploration of the horrors of war and the devastating emotional and physical effects on the victims in their desperate will to survive – until guilt rears its ugly head. @MeredithTaylor
NOW ON RELEASE IN FRANCE | ZURICH FILM FESTIVAL WORLD PREMIERE 2023