The troublesome relationship between a mother and daughter is at the centre of Hanna Doose’s engaging family drama DUST ON OUR HEARTS (Staub auf Unseren Herzen). Kathi (Stephanie Stremler) is struggling to reconcile her love for her mother with the need to escape her control, and her mother Chris (Susanne Lothar), a life coach, is unwilling to let Kathi grow up and be a mother to her own child. Complicating things even further is the return of Kathi’s long-absent father Wolfgang (Michael Kind) who wants to rebuild his relationships with Chris, Kathi and Kathi’s brother Gabriel.
Doose’s film is a realistic portrayal of complicated family relationships: at times monotonous and dull, with day-to-day interactions between the family providing the intimacy with the viewer that makes later scenes more emotionally affecting. Lead actress Stephanie Stremler revealed to the Cambridge Film Festival audience that although there was a script, it was more like a framework for the actors to improvise around. The improvisation of dialogue and action makes the relationships seem more natural; the arguments and conversations are sometimes stilted, and lead in circles without resolution, in the same way that they would in real life. The scenes of both mother and daughter working (Chris as a life coach and Kathi auditioning for acting roles) contrast against this unaffected tone – Kathi struggles with the scripts and goes off course because she is unable to pretend, and her mother’s coaching seems false – designed not to solve problems, but to ask the right questions.
The irony of Chris’s job is that she is unable to listen to or empathise with her daughter…
There are moments of lightness and humour throughout the film which provide welcome relief from the more serious incidents, and the songs included are well-judged and appropriate for the tone of the film. The improvisation leads some of the scenes in directions that are sometimes surprising and which can give moments of subtle comedy. An example of this is when Kathi is trying to talk to her mother about the past while they are painting the living room of the apartment Chris has bought for her, and Chris refuses and continues painting around Kathi as she sits on the floor. The performances are very good, Stephanie Stremler bringing a child-like quality that is very effective in portraying Kathi as being stuck in a protracted adolescence that her mother won’t let her leave. All of the characters are believable, especially Oskar Bokelmann as the reticent adolescent Gabriel who cannot communicate with his family, and Luis August Kurecki as Kathi’s four year old son Lenni (who, like his mother is stuck between two family members at odds with one another) is also very natural and unaffected in the role.
Susanne Lothar’s performance as Chris manages to be both intimidatingly controlling and sympathetically vulnerable. The irony of Chris’s job is that she is unable to listen to or empathise with her daughter, even when Kathi is struggling with things that she herself might have experienced; for example, being a lonely single mother. It is in details like this that DUST ON OUR HEARTS really manages to capture the frustrations of familial relationships.