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Secret Mission

Reinhold Vorschneider/Heimatfilm

Till the End of the Night (2023)

We have a unicorn here, in that “Till the End of the Night” is both a movie that is entirely impossible without the trans character at its core and also completely normal about said trans character. This is, in every way, new, strange and startling, to see a movie which is so matter-of-fact about topics this sensitive, especially when that movie is a crime thriller. Everything stands or falls on the sensitivity, though, which is also fairly special. The crime part of the thriller can’t quite keep up, but then again, when does it ever?

Leni (Thea Ehre, who won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale for her performance) has been released from prison to help Robert (Timocin Ziegler) and Nadia (Aenne Schwarz) with an undercover project in Frankfurt. Leni’s former boss Victor (Michael Sideris), an ex-D.J., is now the probable owner of a dark-web operation called Slowdive, basically a Deliveroo or UberEats for drugs, except so encrypted that every aspect of the transactions are completely untraceable. By the cops’ estimates it’s making 5 million Euros a month, and getting someone on the inside is the only way it will come down. Leni has agreed to act as the go-between for Victor not least because she’s been incarcerated in a men’s prison and the crimes she committed were to finance her transition. If she can achieve the promised early release she can get her surgery and her wonderful new life can really begin. Leni also insisted that the only policeman she’ll work with is Robert, because they were in a serious relationship back when she was arrested and her name was Leonard. What could possibly go wrong?

At first, nothing does. Robert and Leni start showing up at the dance classes Victor is attending with his partner, Nico (Ioana Iacob); and when Victor realizes who Leni is it takes him approximately two seconds to adjust to her correct gender. More importantly, Leni immediately becomes fast friends with the adorable but mistreated Nico, and through this is able to convince Victor to give Robert a job as his driver. But once Robert becomes more entrenched in the old-style policing familiar from a billion cop movies, his stone-age tendencies – not remotely mitigated by his gayness – also come out. In the early stages of the operation Nadia was worried that Leni would mess up. It becomes disturbingly clear the person they need to keep an eye on is Robert.

Mr. Ziegler has a difficult part which he more than rises to. Robert is so contemptuous and self-loathing he would absolutely cut off his nose to spite his face, but he’s also a fast thinker and probably used to be a pretty good cop, before he soured. His anger issues and selfishness (and his stupid haircut) are having permanent repercussions, both personal and professional. Leni, who is determined to make the best of things and delighted with the opportunity to express her true self at last, is having a tougher time than necessary thanks to Robert’s lousy attitude. Victor and Robert are two of a kind though; when Victor insists Robert joins him at his daughter’s lacrosse game (Lacrosse! In Germany! How posh of a school must this kid attend for there to be lacrosse at it! In Germany!) he spends the afternoon explaining how he never wanted to be a parent and dislikes everything to do with his daughter. Under his sunglasses, Robert smirks.

Cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider and editor Stefan Stabenow made an unusual choice in the scenes of Robert and Leni talking at home. Instead of holding the camera still for two-shots as in the restaurant or boat scenes, in the intimate moments the camera repeatedly pans and cuts as the actors move and speak as if the camera was standing still. It’s a montage style normally used to show the passage of time, but here it cleverly emphasizes the distance developing between Leni and Robert. What Robert does to try to overcome that distance is as much of a declaration of love as he is capable of. And the final twist is perfection itself.

That said, “Till the End of the Night” is not a total triumph. Robert’s big plans all move a little too smoothly; Victor decides to trust him a little too quickly; and the other subplots are a little too pat. Instead what director Christoph Hochhäusler has done here is center trans issues in a standard crime story without making a big deal of it. This is so fresh it lifts “Till the End of the Night” past the ordinary into something special. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.


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