The German actress Nina Hoss is 45, halfway between an ingenue and a grande dame. In Hollywood, that would render her invisible. In Europe, she’s doing the best work of her career, in films like “Barbara” (2012) and “Phoenix” (2014), both directed by Christian Petzold, and in “My Little Sister,” Switzerland’s submission for this year’s Oscar race and available for virtual screening through distributor Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com).
Hoss has large, stoic eyes and a face creased with weariness; she plays women who’ve seen the world’s cruelty at close hand. In Petzold’s films, the scope is political and historic; in “My Little Sister,” it’s intimate and domestic. Her character, Lisa Braunschweig, is a Berlin playwright whose twin brother, Sven (Lars Edinger), is dying of leukemia; in trying to save him, she threatens to tear her own life to pieces.
When the film opens, Lisa has already donated bone marrow to her brother, and he has left the hospital to an uncertain recovery. An actor, Sven chafes to get back on stage in his signature role of Hamlet, but his director (Thomas Ostermeier) rightly fears a public collapse. Instead, Lisa spirits him off to Leysin, in the Swiss Alps, where her husband, Martin (Jens Albinus), runs an international music academy and where Sven might recuperate in peace.
A score of elegant classical piano — Schumann, Chopin, Bach — overlays “My Little Sister” like a thin cloth over a hot stove. Sven is not the easiest of patients, obsessing over his stalled career and plonking multicolored cancer wigs on his head at unconcerned angles. The main drama of the film, though, is within Lisa, who builds a fierce protective moat around her brother that alienates their judgmental mother (Marthe Keller), her husband, even her own muse. It takes Sven to point out that Lisa hasn’t written a word since the day he was diagnosed, and her writer’s block comes to seem a form of protest against the capriciousness of fate.
The film’s a showcase for Hoss, who starts “My Little Sister” looking worried and by the end has brought her character to a pitch of fury and despair that borders on madness. The prospect of losing the brother who’s two minutes older than Lisa, who has been her other half since the womb, is a psychic upheaval no one around her comprehends (and she only obscurely). It’s a situation and a performance of raw feeling, so gut-level that it leaves the other actors and the rest of the film looking stunned and ordinary.
“My Little Sister” comes from an unusual creative team: Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, Swiss friends from childhood who write and direct films together. Their fourth feature, it combines a fluid visual realism — there are some astonishing sequences of Alpine parasailing — with an emotional intimacy that’s its own form of jumping off a cliff. This time, they’re collaborating with an actress willing to take a blind leap and bring us with her. It’s a bracing trip, a work of daredevil nerve that serves as its own reward.
MY LITTLE SISTER
Written and directed by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond. Starring Nina Hoss, Lars Eidinger, Marthe Keller, Jens Albinus. Virtually screening at Film Movement, www.filmmovement.com. In German, with subtitles. 99 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, nudity, sexual situations, sickness).