German director Andreas Dresen (Grill Point, Willenbrock) has made an oddly buoyant little film about loneliness: Part Sex in der City, part Dogme doldrums, Summer in Berlin is most affecting as a character study of two women in their late thirties, at the precise moment in their lives when, with middle age on the march, the fritterings and posturings of youth offer respite even as they throw its loss into relief.
Nike (Nadja Uhl) is a reasonably pretty blonde with the body of an Olympian; she dresses like a pop tart—candy-colored bra and thong-strap on perpetual display—and uses her strength to change the diapers of the elderly invalids whose houses she cleans. Barely humoring their stubborn whims and wistful incantations of past lives and loves, Nike works for the weekend, but will settle for the evening, when she can get sauced on her balcony and make prank phone calls with downstairs neighbor Katrin (Inka Friedrich), a divorced single mom suffering through job-interview workshops in her attempt to re-enter the workforce as a window dresser. Katrin’s 12-year-old son, Max (Lil Oggeson), nurses a crush on a wispy classmate, along with his mom’s frequent hangovers; a pair of expensive running shoes are Max’s imagined answer to life’s problems.
When Katrin and Nike run into Ronald (Andreas Schmidt), a truck driver who nearly ran Katrin down in the street, at the local bar, the two friends delicately jockey for the dubious award of his attention. There is something drearily routine in the way Nike eventually picks up the reedy stranger (Roland, Ronald, whatever) and the joke is compounded when the one-night stand mutates into a relationship maintained by force of habit and not much else. In a contrived reaction to Nike’s sudden unavailability, Katrin’s wine habit spirals into a breakdown and a trip to the psych ward.
Dresen canvasses the city’s summer bloom—the streets and rooftops of Berlin captured in handheld 16mm—as the working-class characters negotiate urban spaces that seem like obstacles (Nike strains to catch her reflection in a bar’s ill-placed bathroom mirror; a temp agency rejects Katrin for her age). Both women face impending choices with varying degrees of bravery, and the film’s loose, forgiving rhythm suggests a final summer, passed in fits and starts. On Berlin’s river Spree, loneliness too finds it own level; sometimes it’s manageable, at other times you go under, and always a friend is the ultimate life preserver.