Christoph Hochhäusler’s slow-burn urban noir Till the End of the Night starts with time-lapse footage of the film’s first set, a well-to-do and apparently lived-in apartment flat, being built from scratch out of an empty room. Sadly, what looks to be challenging piece of Brechtian deconstruction is literally a plot point, as well as a not-so-subtle metaphor for the layers of deceit in the story that follows.
Perhaps it’s because it was elevated to the Berlinale competition, where it won one of the festival’s gender-neutral supporting actor prizes for Thea Ehre, or perhaps it’s because it seems like it’s going to break new ground in the genre with the central pairing of a gay male cop and a trans female convict. But whatever it is that brings undue scrutiny to an otherwise serviceable piece of pulp entertainment, Till the End of the Night disappoints not because of what it is but because of what it might have been.
It might also be because Hochhäusler’s film harks back in theme, look and tone to the ’70s, a freer and more audacious period in cinema history. For reasons later to be explained, one could draw parallels with Dog Day Afternoon or, as many other reviews have noted, the outlaw spirit of early Fassbinder, who really could have done a number with this story.
It begins with a party, in the room we just saw assembled, where Robert (Timocin Ziegler) is throwing a party for his lover Leni (Ehre), who has just been released from jail for small-time drug-dealing. They have a cute story about how they met — a long story about Robert working in a restaurant called Carnetti in Hamburg — but when the guests have gone, a new narrative emerges. Robert is an undercover cop and also Leni’s former lover, having known her before she transitioned. The whole thing is fake, a set-up with Leni as the bait for an operation to draw out Victor (Michael Sideris), Leni’s former boss in the music industry, who is now the owner of a popular nightclub as well as the brains behind Slowdive, an encrypted dark-web operation that sells heroin and more.
Bizarrely, the first thing the two do together, posing as a couple, is to take dancing lessons at a class that Victor attends, and, even more bizarrely, it works: Leni strikes up a conversation with Victor’s partner and they double-date. Victor is intrigued by Robert, enough to check up on his cover story. But even though it fails the first sniff test (when he calls the restaurant, possibly the most likely eventuality an undercover cop might prepare for, the staff have no recollection of Robert), Victor throws caution to the wind and employs Robert as his driver. In his new role as chauffeur, Robert insinuates himself into Victor’s business and gets involved in a major deal with brutal gangsters who serve as a kind of Neanderthal counterpoint to Victor’s elegant cybercrime.
By this point, Leni has been largely sidelined, and as the film settles into what it really is — a kind of existential ouroboros, in which Robert is consumed by his own fictions — it becomes abundantly clear that casting a trans actor in a traditionally female role isn’t going to bring much that’s new to the party. If anything, Robert’s increasingly obsessive fixation on Leni couldn’t be any more old-fashioned, as Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) will attest. And, though striking and certainly aloof, Ehre is no Dietrich; the weird lack of chemistry between Leni and Robert, who decides he wants to give Leni the money she needs for her transition costs, makes the payoff hard to invest in.
Such flaws probably won’t harm its TV and streaming potential, as a well-crafted arty crime thriller that looks and sounds like the film it could very nearly be. But genre aficionados may well be driven up the wall by its annoying plot holes and its literalness as they wonder if film noir will ever experience a genuine new golden age in their lifetime.
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