Four Minutes
(Vier Minuten)

Wolfe Video,

Chris Kraus

Hannah Herzsprung, Monica Bleibtreu, Sven Pippig, Richy Muller, Jasmin Tabatabai, Stefan Kurt

Unrated, 112 minutes

Deutschland Prison Blues
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, February, 2009

Four Minutes is an odd but compelling film that manages to breathe new life into the old, hoary chestnut about the elderly music teacher and the young and gifted, but free-willed and undisclipined, pupil. In this case, the student is actually sociopathic; she is a young inmate in a woman's penitentiary. Her teacher is an aged lesbian who has taught piano at the prison since the second World War; she is haunted by memories of the woman she once loved and by her failure to save her from being executed by the Nazis. This recent German film won national trophies for best picture and best actress and, according to, has racked up a lot of other awards at festivals all over the world.

Hannah Herzsprung plays Jenny Von Loeben, a young and deranged punk rebel who is doing time for murder. Jenny is a former child piano prodigy; she is sullen, she bites her hands, she has a bad habit of beating up cellmates and the occasional guard. The old pianist, Traude Krueger (Monica Bleibtreu), is a lonely old spinster who expects perfection from everyone around her. She has been unable, for decades, to move past the trauma she suffered during the war. She continues to work in the same prison where she toiled as a wartime nurse, and she still plays the same music that she once taught to her lost beloved.

Traude is a bit of a rebel herself. When we first see her, she is a passenger in a truck with two biker types who are delivering her new grand piano to the prison. She gets herself into hot water for bringing unauthorized criminals into the stockade (her deliverymen have prison records) and because she borrowed a few guards to help push the piano to her classroom. As a result of the guards' absence, the prisoners cleaning the Warden's office decided to dump his fish tank out the window. (The water - and the fish - hit the piano as it is being pushed through the courtyard.) Needless to say, relations between Traude and her boss are a bit strained.

When Traude initially refuses to take Jenny as a student because of the condition of her hands, Jenny loses her temper and beats Mutze, the attending guard, almost to death. She then assaults the piano and the prison echoes with the sounds of the young woman's frenzied jazz improvisations. There is blood on the keys when she is dragged away by the Sort Team. While fleeing the scene, Traude is stunned by the girl's performance and recognizes her prodigious talent. She convinces the Warden to allow Jenny to participate in a national piano competition and he agrees because of the positive media this will generate for the prison.

The traditional teacher-student relationship in movies like this is given an extreme makeover. Their first heart-to-heart takes place in Solitary where Jenny is restrained with leather straps to a wooden bed. Traude is not interested in rehabilitating her student (which she views as an exercise in futility), she just wants the girl to win the contest for her own personal triumph. "That negro music is worthless," Traude tells Jenny and orders her to stop playing it. "I think you're despicable... but you have a gift. And you have an obligation to preserve that gift."

Traude lays down a number of rules. One of them is obedience. Jenny refuses to be her "whimpering slave" but then gives in and, upon command, eats the letter of apology that she had written. Will Jenny eventually thaw the old woman's icy demeanor? To be honest, not really. If this was a big Hollywood release, Traude would probably turn into Mrs. Doubtfire by the film's end. Or why not Mary Poppins? I'll take edgy over saccharine anyday. The power struggle between them is interesting and it doesn't follow any of the standard movie formulas.

There are also, of course, the underlying lesbian vibes. Brief flashbacks establish almost immediately Traude's wartime love affair, leading the audience to believe that she might be attracted to her student. But if she is - aside from the occasional sidelong glance - she sure isn't showing it unless she's channeling her feelings as a dominatrix. It's difficult to read Jenny, she seems almost asexual while simultaneously amoral. Yet there is a tender, and unexpected, moment when a handcuffed Jenny throws her arms over her teacher to dance with her. There will be fireworks between the two, even violence but, despite all this, their musical bond appears unshakable.
Four Minutes is, at times, an intense drama but there is a touch of the quirky and the offbeat to the way the story is told. Scenes that should be serious are often quietly funny instead - look for the unexpected, the understated and the grimly wry. For example, there is a subplot involving the hapless prison guard named Mutze who was beaten senseless by Jenny in the piano classroom. When he returns to work, he abuses his power and makes Jenny's life miserable but, instead of coming off like one of the guards on HBO's OZ, he's more like a 40-something Sergeant Schultz from TV's Hogan's Heroes. These broad strokes prevent the tale from getting melodramatic and the clashing storytelling styles almost create a new genre onto itself. Look for an odd touch from Hal Ashby's classic 1971 Harold and Maude's opening sequence made manifest at the film's beginning when Jenny awakes in her bunk to discover that her cellmate hanged herself - right behind her - while she slept through it. Unfazed, she fishes through the dead woman's pockets and lights a cigarette that she finds there.
Friction between Jenny and her fellow inmates adds to the tension but, thankfully, Four Minutes never turns into a dykesploitation prison melodrama and there are no gratuitous catfights or butch, overweight, predatory matrons lording it over her plebes. A subplot involving Jenny's adoptive, and abusive, father adds more third act drama but it's a bit forced and distracts from the central dynamic. The film's best scenes focus on the interplay between the two ladies and writer/director Chris Kraus finds subtle humor in the strangest places. The discomfort on Traude's face when she is forced to swap clothes with Jenny, and reluctantly dons her student's punkish attire, is priceless. It is a foregone conclusion that Jenny will make it to the musical finals and her exhibition at the piano in the film's final four minutes is nothing short of electric. It's Schumann meets Emerson, Lake and Palmer and the movie is worth watching just for this one scene alone!

The brief flashbacks wherein Traude remembers love during wartime are beautifully rendered. Many of them are quite scary but there is also tender lyricism when Traude and the nurse whom she loved share what stolen moments they can together. The cinematography throughout Four Minutes is superb and the acting is first rate. A blurb on the DVD box compares Herzsprung (Jenny) to Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. Unlike most American films, no effort is made to make these characters lovable or cute. The friendship between Traude and Jenny is anything but predictable and that is a good thing. Even the "feel-good" concert finale gets an unconventional facelift. This film comes highly recommended.


Jasmin Tabatabai also appears in