Film Review: Cloud 9

Compelling German drama about a 67-year-old seamstress who is not content to wait out the final part of her life “aging gracefully.”

Explicit sex scenes of Inge (Ursula Werner) and her lover Karl (Horst Westphal), and Inge and her husband Werner (Horst Rehberg), comprise the first 15 minutes of Cloud 9, which is about 67-year-old Inge’s dissatisfaction with her predictable life. The graphic sex is a bore, but the reward for getting past it is a surprisingly feminist film with an excellent cast. Cloud 9 challenges persistent Victorian attitudes toward women’s sexuality and, just as significantly, their late-life love affairs. Not since David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), in which the characters are considerably younger, has a drama so thoughtfully explored a woman’s point of view on her extramarital affair.

Inge and Werner have been married for 30 years; their existence, like that of many pensioners, revolves around family and their respective hobbies. Werner’s preoccupation is with trains, and the couple’s vacations consist of rail journeys, circling around and returning to the same place without stopping. They’re just one symptom of the lifestyle that is troubling Inge. She’s a seamstress, and still does occasional fittings and alterations at home, which is how she meets Karl. Recalling a certain flirtatiousness on Karl’s part, Inge decides to return his pants in person. Throughout the film, as Inge grapples with whether to break free of an affectionate but stagnant marriage, she is anchored by her relationship with her daughter Petra (Steffi Kühnert), and by her membership in a women’s choral group. The songs the group rehearses provide a clever device through which German writer-director Andreas Dresen marks the significant transitions of Inge’s late coming-of-age.

The sex scenes at the beginning of the film set up the expectation that Cloud 9 will be about Inge’s post-menopausal sexual reawakening, rather than her emotional turmoil over a life-altering decision. It’s Dresen’s only error in an otherwise well-directed film with a wonderful soundtrack. During the couple’s wordless breakfasts, for instance, Inge’s discomfort is punctuated by the exaggerated gurgling of the coffee-maker. A loudly ticking clock marks not only the passage of time, but the urgency of Inge’s dilemma. Werner’s vinyl records, with recordings of train engines, define a character that’s both obsessive and dull.

Soon after her impulsive affair with Karl begins, Inge confides in Petra, and her daughter tells her there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as she doesn’t confess to Werner. Petra’s attitude changes when Inge, unable to live with her duplicity, tells Werner that she’s found a lover. Confronted with her daughter’s disappointment, Inge cries out that it’s one of the few times in her life when she’s put herself first. The scene succinctly explains Inge’s burgeoning self-awareness at her advanced age: Like many women who choose to be homemakers and mothers, Inge’s role was to support her husband and child, even if it meant delaying her own emotional development.

Inge initiates sex with both Werner and Karl, but Karl desires her. It is precisely this sort of perspicacious observation of feminine sexuality which distinguishes Dresen’s script. Senescent women, valued as grandmothers, mentors and their husband’s faithful “partner”—i.e., no longer sexually desirable—are considered foolish if they are lighthearted, like Inge, and imagine the last part of their lives as a second youth, as a chance for a love affair. When Inge tells Karl about the train vacations with Werner, Karl replies that he prefers a vacation which allows him to linger, to enjoy the sensual pleasures of a new place. Inge at first defends their rail trips, and then, over time, realizes that the journey Karl describes offers chance encounters with the unknown—and occasions for renewal.

In Brief Encounter, Laura and Alec, both married with children, agree to part; each returns to the unsatisfying existence which led to their affair in the first place. In the end, their sensible, moral decision is nevertheless a troubling relinquishment of hope. Over six decades later, watching Cloud 9, many in the audience will expect the same from Inge and Karl, or at least from Inge. That’s why Dresen made this movie: It is an act of hope. Cloud 9 imagines a world where women need not sacrifice themselves to convention, and where aging, rather than being graceful, can possess all the awkwardness and beauty of youth.