Migration: Two former Yugoslavian women meet up in Zurich in 'Fraulein,' starting Friday on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Crossing Borders with 'Fraulein'

Dennis Harvey October 21, 2008

Clearly, the U.S. can no longer claim to be the melting pot of the world. The fall of the Iron Curtain and formation of the European Union has drastically upped worker migration, mostly East-to-West. But you needn’t actually visit Europe to experience its changing face: Anyone who’s taken stock of recent film festival and arthouse movies knows that more and more are being made about foreign-born arrivals in France, Great Britain, Scandinavia, and Italy.

These stories come in all forms, from big multinational border-crossing sagas (like Arash T. Riahi’s escape-from-Iran drama For a Moment, Freedom, which won Montreal’s top prize last month and will hopefully reach these shores next year) to small character studies. A fine example of the latter is Andrea Staka’s first narrative feature, Fraulein, which opens on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki this Friday. It’s a Swiss-German coproduction by a director who lives in both Switzerland and New York City, about two women from former Yugoslavian territories who wind up meeting in a Zurich cafeteria. Nothing so unusual about that—though of course, there’s nothing "usual" about either character.

Middle-aged Ruza is the eatery’s manager, a rather harsh and humorless woman who fled Belgrade nearly three decades ago under circumstances that left a lasting bitter taste. She lives alone, and at work maintains a frosty, superior distance from employees who (like the joint’s patrons) are mostly veteran Cold War refugees as well. Among the underlings she sternly intimidates is older Mila (Ljubica Jovic), who’s working herself into an early grave while her layabout husband (Zdenko Jelcic) fixates on funding their retirement home back in Croatia—though it’s her hard-earned money alone he spends on it.

Representing a third, youngest generation amongst these women is 20-something Ana (Marija Skaricic), who lasted out the war in Sarajevo—if barely—and now arrives in Zurich as a seemingly footloose, even reckless traveler seeking hedonistic escape via clubbing and one night stands.

Ana happens to be present as Mila suffers a workplace accident. Without thinking, customer bandages up the bleeding elder worker, then casually takes her place behind the counter as server when Ruza barks at Mila to get a move-on. Such levelheaded adaptability impresses Ruza, who needs a new staffer (yet had rudely dismissed Mila’s proposing a niece as suitable hire). Ana brushes off pay for her fill-in stint. Still, she’s no wealthy tourist, and upon further insistence takes the job.

Ana has a secret, if not several. The main one being a serious health problem that reveals her hard-partying behavior as being less "carefree" than an attempt to live life in a desperate rush, avoiding emotional attachments to minimize pain. Thus she’s by turns effusive and elusive, warm and brusque—big on extravagant gestures, skittish about follow-through. It’s her idea to throw Ruza a birthday party, which co-workers think will only anger the boss-lady. But after a moment’s shock, she’s bewildered, then touched, then exhilarated. A heady night of drinking and dancing finds her waking up next morning in bed with a restaurant patron whose overtures she’d long snubbed.

From that still-early point, Fraulein might easily have turned into a predictable hash of mawkish tearjerker and forced frozen-heart-thawing "celebration of life." But Staka doesn’t play it that way. The terse writing, economical direction and beautifully reserved performances keep this movie’s emotions tightly reined, and all the more tautly effective for it. Not a rote "feel good" flick (or a knee-jerk Worst Case Scenario "feel bad" one either), Fraulein is simply a film that truly earns the variably happy, sad, and ambivalent feelings it satisfactorily stirs.