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My Little Sister (Schwesterlein)

Dying on stage? As a young theatre actor succumbs to a very aggressive cancer, his twin sister resorts to desperate measures in order to instil happiness and meaning into his life - live from the Berlinale


Sven (Lars Eidinger) is a successful thespian at Berlin’s Schaubuehne theatre. But he has been diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia, and his body is becoming increasingly vulnerable. He has undergone chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, plus he has to take a copious amount of corticosteroids. As a consequence, his face is swollen and his hair is gone. His nephews don’t even recognise at first. To top it all up, he has eczema, and his body is covered with wounds.

His twin sister Lisa (Nina Hoss) moved Switzerland with her husband and children, after giving up her ambitions as a playwright. Sven calls her “my little sister” because she was born two minutes after him. She returns to Berlin in order to care for her ailing brother, as his condition begins to deteriorate. At first, Sven avoids self-pity and is determined to continue working. Until reality hits: he’s to frail to get back on stage. His erstwhile director is concerned that he will collapse and die in front of the crowds. So he tries to find joy elsewhere. He goes on a frantic night out in search of sex and entertainment only to realise that that too won’t alleviate his malaise.

Sven’s condition is so critical that it challenges German stoicism, a culture generally used to dealing with death, Sven has heated arguments with his mother and sister, and Lisa’s relationship with her husband Martin (Jens Albinus) also begins to deteriorate. Tears and hollering populate the movie throughout. Martin suggests that Lisa and the children should return to Switzerland because he does not want his boys to witness (and become traumatised) by their uncle’s condition. Lisa is infuriated by her husband’s selfish proposition.

My Little Sister is a crude and merciless portrait of a terminal disease. Be prepared for a rough ride, devoid of lyricism and romanticising. The details of the treatment are very graphic and vivid. Sven’s palpable pain is jarring for both Lisa and the viewers. It’s impossible not to the moved by Sven’s realisation that his career is over, and by his overwhelming agony on a hospital bed.

But not all is doom and gloom. Lisa has a plan in store. She begins to write a play for her ailing brother, one which he can perform on stage (perhaps while sitting down). The text is inspired on the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel (aka Little Brother and Little Sister). Sounds like a brilliant idea, and the epitome of fraternal love and altruism. But could a final performance instil some joy into Sven’s despondent existence? But is it ethical? And is it feasible? Lisa is determined to find out.

My Little Sister is showing in Competition at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 24-02-2020

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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