Here’s the thing about getting old as I imagine it. The joints weaken, the memory gets fuzzy around the edges, we begin to lose track of the things that got us out of bed in the mornings. For some people, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Slowing down allows the opportunity to step back, enjoy the sedate and measured winding-up of one’s life, perhaps even look forward to the Next Big Adventure. But for others, not.
It’s not that Paul Averhoff, principal of the new German film Back On Track (Sein Letztes Rennen) is ostensibly unhappy about his twilight years. His wife Margot is devoted to him, as he is to her; he has his garden too, and the opportunity to pop out his hearing aids and revel in the blessed silence when the mood takes him. But after Margot has one fall too many, their daughter Brigit decides that it’ll be best for everyone if they were placed in an old people’s home. Which is a rude awakening for Paul. Old, yes, but not incapable. Supported facilities are for the incapable.
Back on Track is the latest in a veritable flood of films that one might loosely class as the Silver Screen. Some, like Michael Haneke’s Amour, are unsympathetic and unsentimental (to be fair, Haneke wouldn’t know sentimentality if it woke him up in the middle of the night and slapped him about the face); some neutral, using age merely as a dramatic device rather than raison d’etre (the middling Night Train to Lisbon, for instance), whilst others put a jolly face on the process of getting old.
Back on Track, directed by Kilian Riedhof, is a pretty odd film because it incorporates elements of all of the above. Wilful or not, it does itself no favours with a scatter-gun approach that I’m not sure whether to put down to over-reaching ambition or over-arching cynicism. It has its moments, both good and risible: I guess one could describe it as a high-scoring draw.
The sport at the heart of Back on Track, however, is athletics, and specifically long distance running. Paul (an engaging, if a bit overdone Dieter Hallervorden) was once a superstar, you see, gold medal winner in the Marathon in the 1956 Olympics with Margot (Tatja Seibt, affectingly understated throughout) his faithful second. It is all in the past, and would have probably remained there if it weren’t for the intellectual and emotional privations of their new abode. The old people’s home isn’t a bad place, at least not in that sense; just patronising and dull. Deadly dull. Basket weaving and sermons about fear and death. Paul recognises that he has a choice, either to allow himself to subside into decrepitude and wait patiently to die, or to come out swinging. Or, in this case, running: Paul decides that he is going to run the Berlin Marathon, and he starts off his training by doing laps around the home. This disruption is to the consternation of the staff – headed by senior nurse Rita (Katrin Sass) and hippy-dippy-iron-fist-in-a-velvet-kaftan manager Frau Mordhorst (Annekathrin Burgur). Let the fun and games begin.
Let’s think about Back on Track in terms of laps and split times. I’ve already said that it’s a bit of a muddle . We have comedy, a bit of melodrama, a not-throughly-thought-through side plot involving Birgit (Heike Makatsch) – a permanently transient air stewardess – and her problems with intimacy. The film loses a bit of pace here. The dominant tone is sentimentality; this isn’t necessarily to my taste, but when it works well, its fine. Here though, it’s ladled on quite liberally and unsubtly, which means that Back on Track falls even further back.
But on the other hand: something that it captures, and captures extremely well, is the essential loneliness of old age. Growing old is grim, especially when you don’t have anyone to do it with you. There, but for the grace of God or good luck, will go all of us in due course, and it’s a terribly sobering thought. Riedhof, working from a self-penned script, handles these moments very well. If he had stayed in this key, I rather think Back on Track would have been at least a pretty good film, a sub 3 hour marathon if you like. As it is, it meanders to a feel-good finishing line that doesn’t feel entirely deserved.
Back On Track (2013)
Directed by Kilian Riedhof
Starring Dieter Hallervorden, Tatja Seibt, Heike Makatsch
114 minutes, German w. English and Hebrew subtitles