Prison Keys

Running time 112 minutes
Written and
Directed by Chris Kraus
Starring Monica Bleibtreu, Hannah Herzsprung, Stefan Kurt

Chris Kraus’s Four Minutes (Vier Minuten), from his own screenplay (in German with English subtitles), prospers with a much more manageable amount of time for its suspenseful climax than was afforded 88 Minutes, and is consequently a much more efficient and effective entertainment. Jenny von Loeben (Hannah Herzsprung) is a onetime child prodigy pianist who is now serving a life sentence for a particularly gruesome murder. Traude Krüger (Monica Bleibtreu) is an 80-year-old prison piano teacher whose employment will end if she is unable to recruit more than the handful of pupils that she teaches now. When Traude discovers Jenny’s secret talent, she resolves to train the ill-mannered and prone-to-violence Jenny for a forthcoming competition in the local opera house. Because Jenny’s victory would bring some favorable publicity for the maximum-security prison, Direktor Meyerbeer (Stefan Kurt) gives Traude permission to train Jenny.

But there are many obstacles for Traude to overcome before she can achieve her long-shot goal for Jenny. Right off the bat there is a recalcitrant prison guard Kowalski (Richy Müller), who refuses to cooperate with the training by insisting that Jenny be handcuffed behind her back. When Jenny demonstrates that she can play with her back to the piano, Kowalski reluctantly removes the handcuffs.

A second obstacle arises when Jenny displays a predilection for jazz compositions, which Traude dismisses as “noise” and “Negro music.” Mütze (Sven Pippig), a friendlier prison guard than Kowalski, and a fan of classical music, has meanwhile formed his own pupil-to-teacher relationship with Traude; she teaches him lines from operas for a quiz show he has entered with amusingly adverse results.

In the course of the film, Traude is compelled to confront her own ancient betrayal to the Gestapo of her lesbian sweetheart, who was then executed. Traude’s incriminating dossier is shown to her by Jenny’s incestuously guilt-ridden father, lawyer Gerhard von Loeben (Vadim Glowna), who pleads with Traude to help Jenny win the contest. Jenny’s past life is seen in a new light by Traude, but after a few more violent actions by Jenny, all seems lost until Traude convinces the authorities to give Jenny four minutes at the opera house piano before they clamp her into confinement for her presumed incorrigibility. The film’s ending is one of the most powerful I have ever seen both for its sheer unexpectedness and its behavioral nobility. Four Minutes is simply not to be missed.

Prison Keys