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by Nikolaus Leytner

grade: 5.5

In Nikolaus Leytner’s Half a Life, alongside a clear television character, far more complex moral issues concerning anger, resentment, deep sorrow and, last but not least, a heartbreaking sense of guilt are raised.


In what particular context should we place a feature film like Half a Life (original title: Ein halbes Leben), an Austrian-German co-production directed by Nikolaus Leytner in 2008? Soon said.

If there is a particular film genre that countries like Austria and Germany particularly love, it is the detective and crime genre. This happens, however, much more often on television than in film. One only has to think of the numerous television series – from Derrick (from Germany) to Inspector Rex (Austria) – which, after having enjoyed substantial audience success mainly from the mid-1970s until, approximately, the end of the 1990s, are still broadcast from time to time by numerous television channels.

On the wave of such successes, numerous other series and feature films with a similar approach are still being produced today. And often, we see Austria and Germany cooperating in the creation of new, intricate stories, in which not only brutal crimes, but also – and above all – the characters themselves are in the foreground, with a special focus on their inner selves and the most disparate complications and moral implications of the case.

Within this rich production context, then, can be placed Half a Life, where, alongside a clear television approach, much more complex moral issues concerning anger, resentment, deep sorrow and, last but not least, a heartbreaking sense of guilt are initially raised.

Ulrich Lenz (here played by Josef Hader) works as a driver in the Vienna underground network. The man is trying hard to lead a normal life and start a family, being, in fact, about to marry his fiancée (Ursula Strauss). However, he has a dark past and, having served a prison sentence for rape years earlier, it is soon discovered that he has never been arrested for another, much more brutal crime involving the murder of a 20-year-old girl during a night out at the disco.

On the other hand, there are the parents of the victim (played by Matthias Habich and Franziska Walser). The girl’s father has never stopped searching for his daughter’s murderer and when, years later, a new method of investigation using DNA analysis is discovered, he is determined to continue investigating the case in order to find out who killed the girl.

Half a Life, then, develops over the course of several years and on two distinct levels. It is, then, with an alternating montage that Nikolaus Leytner (here also author of the screenplay) shows us now the vicissitudes and inner torments of Ulrich Lenz, now those of the girl’s father. But how do the feelings of both parties change over the years? And, above all, how do both lives change as time passes? Is it better to lead one’s life as if nothing had happened (but still carrying a heavy burden on one’s conscience) or to finally atone for one’s guilt, seeing the punishment almost as a kind of liberation? And again: will it surely make one feel better to find a guilty party, or will one mysteriously feel no more anger towards him once he has got his sentence?

There are many questions raised by Leytner in his Half a Life. And these are also quite difficult to deal with without ending up in the predictable. But if, initially, alongside a somewhat too televisual approach – complete with a constant and almost ‘cumbersome’ musical score and small (but forgivable) stylistic flaws in which kites fly in the air without apparently being guided by anyone – the most interesting aspect of the film is precisely the emotions of the characters (here excellently depicted thanks also to a very good cast), then, as we approach the finale, everything is treated in a more superficial and predictable way.

What a pity. Above all because of the numerous initial potentials. It is a pity that, after almost an hour and a half of suspense and identification now in one protagonist now in the other, everything is wrongly ‘simplified’. And it is also a pity that the character of Ulrich Lenz himself – who still, from time to time, falls victim to sporadic fits of rage – is not properly developed in all its interesting and possible aspects.

Good feelings don’t always prevail over past resentments. And this does not always work in film (or, at times, on television). And sometimes one really has to ‘get one’s hands dirty’ all the way in the name of the success of a film. In the name of art.

Original title: Ein halbes Leben
Directed by: Nikolaus Leytner
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 2008
Running time: 95’
Genre: drama, noir, crime
Cast: Matthias Habich, Josef Hader, Franziska Walser, Wolfgang Böck, Ingrid Burkhard, Katharina Straßer, Ursula Strauss, Cornelius Obonya, Franziska Weisz, Wolfgang S. Zechmayer, Anna Yntema, Kristina Yntema, Alois Frank, Sabine Hergert, Eva Linder, Manfred Stella, Robert Wiesner, Marcus Thill
Screenplay: Nikolaus Leytner
Cinematography: Hermann Dunzendorfer
Produced by: Allegro Film, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, ORF

Info: the page of Half a Life on iMDb; the page of Half a Life on the website of the Allegro Film