The Berlin Wall's been down for twenty years, but boy, does East Germany still look grim. Nevertheless, one would hope things aren't quite as dreary as they're depicted in the Frankfurt-Oder, just about as far a German can wander before hitting Poland, of Grill Point. Dresen sets a small, washed-out stage drained of nearly all possibility but filled with nearly all possible concrete, peoples it with two troubled couples and lets the sparks fly.
That's not a metaphor — it's his method. Having received a hefty chunk of prize change for 1999's Nightshapes, he decided to plow the windfall into an experiment: four actors, no celluloid, no script, no guarantee it would turn out watchable. Surprising, then, how watchable it the movie is, and how its improvisation appears not as ostentation but as a barely-detectable engine of both refreshing realism and delightful absurdism.
We open on a set of lives as tiresome and stifling as their milieu, which, though technically un-communist for over a decade, still bears deep scars both aesthetic and aspirational. We meet the two central couples as they plod through a slide show of vacation photos. Uwe and Ellen, perhaps the more troubled half of the quartet, later bicker over whether or not a certain photo was too embarrassing to have revealed. He spends his days cooking sausages in the tentlike restaurant of the film's title. She sells perfume to endlessly indecisive matrons in a department store.
"I don't think she's happy with him," Chris comments to Katrin on the drive home. Known publicly as "Magic Chris", he announces horoscopes and Britney Spears tracks on Radio 24, which broadcasts "the hits of the past 24 years." (Having worked in the commercial radio industry, I can assure you that this is just as mechanical a job as it's portrayed.) She directs trucks through a weigh station. All four seem to be waiting around for death's sweet embrace forty or fifty years too early, vaguely hoping that something interesting might one day happen.
Suddenly, something interesting does, specifically to Chris and Ellen. After ambiguous glances, awkward elevator rides and his accidental introduction of her as "my girlfriend" — which presumably sounds less deliberate in the original German — they wind up in bed. Or in the parked car, at least. It's in the bathtub that the plot really thickens, as that's where Katrin walks in on them, then promptly walks out on them, but not before instinctively uttering the old entering-an-occupied-bathroom "Sorry!"
In another place and/or time, the four might have eased into the simple solution of organizing into an elaborate partnership system if "primaries," "secondaries" and "tertiaries," rafting out to international waters and forming a line marriage. No such possibility in the reality of Grill Point, which instead condemns its characters to stumble through conciliatory attempt after unpromising conciliatory attempt. At one desperate point, Uwe calls the four to his home for breakfast so that they might straighten out their problems all at once. This hail-mary works as well as it sounds, and it's made no more effective by the kids who keep wandering in to show mom and day what they've drawn.
This grim scene turns out to have been ripped straight from the real life of Axel Prahl, the actor portraying Uwe, who once found himself in the kitchen-table hot seat between his girlfriend, his other girlfriend and other girlfriend's husband. Prahl's extracurricular activities continued to prove fertile ground for material, such as Uwe's suspiciously realistic tooth extraction: Prahl had a toothache that could only be fixed by desperate measures, so his character tries to win back his wife with tactics like getting his homely teeth fixed up. Two birds, one stone.
Watching these ideas develop organically within the film as it interacts with the both real world and the filmmakers' ideas along the way is perhaps Grill Point's prime pleasure. Witness, for instance, the musician stationed outside Uwe's shop, who over time grows from a lone irritant to a full-fledged band invited in for sausages. Or the sudden power outage that effects all the players individually at a moment of collective desperation. Or the in-character interview segments that Dresen shot purely as improvisational exercises — until he worked them into the narrative. (Even the dentist gets a few words in about the importance of oral hygiene.)
This satisfyingly rough-edged piece of cinema occasionally threaten a return to formula. The direst of these comes near the end, when Chris broadcasts Katrin a tailor-made horoscope meant to announce his severance of all ties with Ellen and hope for a return to their former life. Fortunately, Dresen leaves this unresolved, and we're spared a visible reunion that puts them effectively back to square one. But it's still a far less interesting move than what precedes it. It's especially less interesting than, say, when Katrin confides to her interviewer that she's actually more attracted to Chris now that he's attracted another woman. Grill Point's distance from neat-little-packagehood makes it excellent, but sometimes it swerves scarily close to the line. Perhaps that bolsters our gratitude that it doesn't cross over.