Man tries his whole life to keep away every thought of death. But faced with the physical end of a loved one, the intimacy of the vulnerable body becomes the only real, only comforting experience. The cinema is actually an inappropriate place to accompany this process, because physical closeness automatically takes on a voyeuristic note; and the pictorial composition exaggerates a profane process.
The cinema remains attached to the material plane, its inadequacy is also a metaphysical problem. “We have learned to give our bodies to others unreservedly when it comes to sex,” Juliane quotes Kerstin Simone de Beauvoir on her mother’s deathbed. “But we haven’t yet learned to trust each other with our souls.”
With her second feature film “The Death of My Mother”, Jessica Krummacher has succeeded in doing something that is actually impossible, in its ruthless intimacy so tender and at the same time difficult to bear. She made a film about the death of her own mother, with two actresses whose restrained acting found a kind of guide in the laconic title. The emotionality of a farewell is largely external in Krummacher’s film – perhaps in gentle contradiction to Beauvoir. Although Kerstin spends her final weeks in the palliative care ward of a Catholic nursing home, her imminent death has no spiritual dimension, eternal life is not at stake.
Rather, death is reduced to a physically comprehensible process: by touching the increasingly brittle skin, by washing, by feeling the heavy breath, by massaging the feet. Gerald Kerkletz’s camera moves very close to Birte Schnöink, who plays Juliane, and Elsie de Brauw in the role of mother Kerstin, who is bedridden and can hardly speak. “The world has shrunk to the size of this miserable room,” says Juliane from the off. Only the daily care routines and visits from old friends who want to say goodbye to Kerstin offer variety. But her words of comfort do not reach Juliane.
But as shocking as Krummacher describes Kerstin’s physical decay, “Zum Tod meine Mutter” also has its bright moments. When Juliane goes for a walk in the surrounding forest and Kerkletz’ camera suddenly opens up to a world outside of pain – in sliding plan sequences. Or a visit with friends to a Palatinate inn: at the same table where Helmut Kohl ate his beloved Saumagen.
Culinary excursions are a recurring motif in the first half of the film, in ironic contrast to the fact that Kerstin refuses to eat in order to starve to death. Active euthanasia is punishable in Germany, and Kerstin doesn’t want to expect anyone to become her “accomplice”.
And so Juliane spends her days in this “miserable room” watching her mother slowly dozing away, the loss of her personality. “It’s the phenomena of dissolution that dissolve the outside world,” she describes this process. The resistance is fading. At first, Kerstin demands morphine from the nurse with a gruff undertone against the pain – even if the doctors won’t let her die. A reaction that astounds Juliane so much that she has to splutter. But soon the mother can only express herself with panting and moaning, exhausted Juliane lies down in bed with her. Physical closeness is like a desperate embrace of the dissolving outside world.
Juliane gets encouragement from a demented patient who got lost in the doctor’s room. “Is the pain secondary in view of the complete annihilation of existence?” Juliane wants to know from the doctor. The old woman stands beside her absently, but then, for a moment lucid, she says a single word. no