Directed and written
by Andreas Dresen
Starring Ursula Werner,
Horst Rehberg, Horst Westphal
Here's why it's a familiar triangle: A married woman betrays her husband to have an affair with another man. And here's why it's not: The woman is in her mid-60s and the other man is precisely 76. In Cloud 9, a heart-rending portrayal of love's labours lost and won, age makes all the difference, and age makes no difference at all. Whenever it strikes, whether in the throes of adolescence with the future spread out like a rolling plain, or on the verge of obsolescence with the calendar relentlessly ticking, love is a sublime terror.
Plump with weary eyes, Inge (Ursula Werner) has been wed for more than three decades to Werner (Horst Rehberg), scrawnier of frame and with a clipped white beard stained by his nicotine habit. He's retired, she does a little tailoring work from home, and the camera, operating in closed frames as tidy as their German apartment, observes the couple's daily routine. Undeniably, they have a solid marriage, the enduring kind marked now by few words but many small kindnesses - backs scrubbed in the tub, dishes done together, glasses of wine genially shared. And they remain sexually active, a fact that writer-director Andreas Dresen confirms with full-frontal frankness. Their bodies have sagged, their skin has withered, but flesh still holds the promise of pleasure, and they take that pleasure keenly, with satisfied moans.
So why does Inge embark on the affair with Karl (Horst Westphal)? Certainly, there's no hesitation: She sews his pants, then avidly gets into them. No doubt, he's a vibrant 76 and a more athletic version of Werner, whose idea of a good time is to listen to recordings of train engines. What's more, Karl is gentle too, and hugely appreciative of his good fortune. Undressing Inge, he pronounces with unfeigned admiration: "My beauty." They giggle in bed, hold hands in the rain, and, at night back in her apartment, she furtively whispers her love into the phone.
But the question remains: Why? For Inge, the answer is as much a torment as anything else: "I long for him constantly. It just happened. I didn't want it." Of course, she feels guilt, but less from the act of adultery than from the lies it necessitates. For her, the act is almost an irrevocable force of nature, while the dishonesty is controllable and thus a more grievous sin. The great decision, then, is whether to tell Werner. In the kind of role reversal that time often brings, a distraught Inge confides in her adult daughter, whose advice is worldly and adamant: Enjoy it while it lasts, but only in secret - say nothing.
The rest shouldn't be divulged. To be sure, it's melodrama, like so much of life at any juncture, but the theatrics are played with exquisite restraint by each of the three principals, all veterans of the German stage and all gifted in the art of fine emotional discriminations, shifting fluidly from tenderness to anxiety to anger and back again. With one exception, Dresen's direction is equally subtle and well observed. His only misstep is an excessive devotion to that train imagery, and an attendant symbolism that flirts with cliché - the iron tracks of fate, all those railed "ships passing in the night."
Mainly, though, Cloud 9 swirls impressively around the not uncommon but seldom discussed relationship between advancing age and romantic love. Yes, as with the young, the same endorphins flow and electrify the moment; however, for the elderly, that moment in the present comes with a narrow future. In that sense, age only magnifies the age-old dilemma: With the clock running, the elderly are well advised to seize the day; but they also have little left of the time that heals all wounds, that forgives mistakes, that blunts the sharp fact that actions have consequences. Inge is deeply imprisoned in that dilemma. Cupid's arrow strikes her late, spreading its timeless joy and dripping its quick poison.