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By James Teitelbaum | May 10, 2009

Q: What does it take to make a bad seed grow?
A: A worse seed!

I am not sure that the above riddle actually makes any sense, but it seems to be the theme explored in “Four Minutes,” a captivating German drama by writer/director Chris Kraus. As the film opens, Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung) is in a maximum security prison for teenage girls. The residents of this facility are the worst of the worst, the most vicious little vixens that Germany has had the misfortune to spawn. Jenny is a killer, and her violent tendencies plus her contempt for everyone around her seem to guarantee that she will be locked up indefinitely. Jenny’s roommate has just hung herself; Jenny’s reaction is to steal the girl’s cigarettes.

Into this scenario strides Traude (Monica Bleibtreu), a stern, elderly piano teacher who is determined to bring manners and culture to the imprisoned girls. Out of 300 inmates, only four people are taking lessons from Traude – one of them is a prison guard, and another was Jenny’s dead roommate – so Traude is in danger of losing her job. In searching for more students, she meets Jenny, who it is already an extremely gifted pianist. Naturally.

Thus we have the central conceit of the film: in order to continue teaching, mean old Traude must repeatedly go to bat for mean young Jenny, who is always getting into worse and worse trouble.

Traude has an empathy with Jenny, however, since the old woman is more than she seems. Flashbacks show us that Traude has been with the prison for sixty years, serving there as both a nurse and a piano teacher during World War II, when it was an SS prison camp. She has a rather dark past and has spent six decades trying to find the one missing piece of her life that she will need to feel complete; this piece was denied to her by the Nazis and she’s still not over it. Mirroring the Greek myth (and ensuing George Bernard Shaw play) of Pygmalion, Traude has tried to somehow justify her empty life by creating one thing of beauty, sculpting this delinquent Eliza Doolittle into something respectible. In order to feel validated and to somehow absolve her own past, Traude needs to transform just one student into a true virtuoso performer, but has never quite succeeded. Jenny is Traude’s greatest challenge, best hope, and last chance.

Between flashbacks to Traude’s younger years and scenes of Jenny doing everything she can to make things harder on herself, plus a subplot about that prison guard piano student, Jenny eventually wins a piano competition, thus earning herself the privilege of performing in a national one. Unfortunately, the warden vetoes her leave, so in order to attend the performance, she has to break out of the big house. A plan is hatched by Traude.

Of course there are conflicts between the two women (Jenny likes to break into spirited boogie-woogie licks whenever she is irritated with Traude; the stern taskmaster repeatedly scolds the student: “never play that Negro music ever again”). Jenny never shows anything but contempt for her teacher, and I was relieved that the film never devolves into the predictable mawkishness that would result if the two women ended up warmly bonding with each other. Both of these people are severely screwed up, but when each of them makes one small concession towards opening up to the other (in separate scenes late in the film), we know that this small step towards common ground is the only taste of reconciliation we are going to get to see. But, amidst the grudging respect between damaged teacher and hateful student, the half-inch that they both creep towards something resembling friendship is enough.

Jenny’s final performance ends in a freak-out of epic proportions. She knows that she is going back to prison, for a long time, and that she’ll certainly be deprived of access to a piano. Channeling an inner rage barely tempered with her technical skills, she goes off the map, ignores the classical music she is supposed to be playing, and improvises a pastiche of “negro music,” John Cage-style lid-slapping and string-plucking, modern dance, and classics. The spastic burst of self-expression, the last bit of joy she will be allowed to have for many years, reminded me of Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty towards the end of “Blade Runner.” Just as Batty runs around the ruined Bradbury Building howling like an animal, leaping about, sticking his head through a wall, and reveling in his final moments of life, so it is with Jenny. Adrenaline flowing, she crams years of exuberance and joy and freedom into the four minutes of her performance… before being hauled off to jail.

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