Although it presents quite a few problems, Single Bells – directed by Xaver Schwarzenberger in 1997 and co-produced by Austria and Germany – skilfully avoids all the rhetoric and cheap feel-goodism into which situations of this kind can easily fall. And it also does so without being afraid to “play dirty “.
Christmas: time for holidays, for presents, for games. And time for family. Yes, family. It is precisely a family of her own that Kati (played by Martina Gedeck), a brilliant 35-year-old career woman who runs an important advertising company and has been living with her boyfriend Jonas (Gregor Bloéb), with whom she shares a passion for travelling, for eight years, misses. Kati is the protagonist of Single Bells, a feature film for television – as well as an Austrian-German co-production – directed by Xaver Schwarzenberger in 1997. Kati’s love story, then, will find itself at a crossroads, when she expresses the desire to marry and have children, something Jonas does not seem to think about at all. The woman, so, determined to end her relationship, will go to visit her sister Luiserl (Mona Seefried), married and with two children. Joining the already large family will be the mother of the two young women and Luiserl’s mother-in-law. Will it really be so easy, though, for them all to live together, even if only for a few days?
If we want to overlook – at least for the moment – the many problems that a film like Single Bells presents, it must be acknowledged that Schwarzenberger’s feature film skilfully avoids all the rhetoric and facile do-goodism into which situations of this kind can easily fall. And he also does so without being afraid of “playing dirty”, of trespassing into the “politically incorrect”, staging a comedy in which no one really seems to feel the so-called magic of Christmas. Not even young Sissi, Luiserl’s second daughter, who, on the contrary, seems visibly upset by all the quarrels and paradoxical situations that take place in her home.
Yet, despite almost unbelievable situations, despite mice running terrified around the house in danger of being eaten by the cat, despite Christmas trees catching fire, for most of its duration from the beginning, Single Bells is definitely very weak. It is the strained dialogues, during the scenes taking place at the dinner table, that are the absolute protagonists in the first part of the film. But such bickering, apart from occasionally making one laugh, is, in the overall mise en scène, rather weak, making the work lack personality, despite its initial potential.
And potential also means the very direction of Xaver Schwarzenberger, who – let us not forget – has an important film career behind him, which even began as cinematographer to the great Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And if, after the latter’s premature death, he delighted audiences and critics with his debut feature The Pacific Ocean (1983), with which he won the Silver Bear at the 33rd Berlin Film Festival, immediately afterwards he began to devote himself almost exclusively to feature films for television. Many of which, unfortunately, cannot be said to be fully successful. Just like this Single Bells, which will be followed in 2000 by O Palmenbaum, in which we can see Kati, together with her big family, once again dealing with Christmas holidays.
It is not, after all, a completely deplorable work, Single Bells. In spite of a occasionally weak script, we cannot fail to acknowledge an overall good direction, well suited to the kind of story and the kind of audience it is aimed at. Yet, considering his past works, one could surely expect more from a name like Xaver Schwarzenberger. But it doesn’t matter. At least he has given us an original Christmas. So much for producers all over the world who insist on presenting us always with the same story in different sauces every year.
Original title: Single Bells
Directed by: Xaver Schwarzenberger
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 1997
Running time: 88’
Cast: Martina Gedeck, Inge Konradi, Johanna von Koczian, Mona Seefried, Erwin Steinhauer, Gregor Bloéb, Mariella Hahn, Thomas Thurgar, Adelheid Picha, Barbara Demmer, Nina Proll, Susanne Michel, Ina Lang, Proschat Madani, Elisabeth Orth
Screenplay: Ulrike Schwarzenberger
Cinematography: Xaver Schwarzenberger
Produced by: Bayerischer Rundfunk, Teamfilm Produktion, ORF