Decades after the end of World War II, the partly burned body of a young woman was found in a wooded area near the Norwegian town of Bergen. Her possible connection to a long-simmering Norwegian scandal, one dating back to the war, became the subject of a novel by Hannelore Hippe — and, in turn, of Two Lives, a new thriller loosely based on that novel.
The movie, from German filmmaker Georg Maas, speculates indirectly on the woman's identity through another character — Katrine, a middle-aged wife, mother and grandmother with a comfortable life in a scenic Norwegian coast town. But Katrine (Juliane Kohler) is sitting on an unhappy secret, which becomes obvious early on, when we meet her arriving in Eastern Germany in a dark wig.
It's 1990: The Berlin Wall has fallen, and reunification is under way. At the now-empty orphanage where she was raised, Katrine furtively cuts out a name from a document in the archive. It's the first sign that her coming journey between two countries — between a murky past and a present that's looking less golden by the minute — will be less a nostalgia trip than an increasingly panicked effort at damage control.
When an aggressive young human-rights lawyer (Ken Duken) asks her to join a lawsuit against the Norwegian government, Katrine's carefully built domestic idyll begins to unravel. Is Katrine who she says she is, the long-lost daughter of Ase (Liv Ullmann) and the long-dead German soldier with whom she fell in love?
Two Lives makes a decent thriller, though it does seem a touch overloaded with grainy flashbacks and plotty flourishes retrieved from Sergei Eisenstein (or perhaps Brian De Palma). Not that these faults matter much: The most ham-fisted filmmaker couldn't ruin the incendiary material on which this tale is built.
In the twists and turns that slowly reveal what Katrine is hiding, it turns out Two Lives has a lot more than individual culpability on its mind. Katrine's agony taps into the painful legacy of Norway's slut-shaming of women who fell into relationships with German men during the War, and the terrible price paid by their children.
From there the movie fans out into the ongoing toxic connection between Germany and Norway, rooted in Lebensborn, Heinrich Himmler's mad effort to engineer an Aryan super-race by commandeering the offspring of blond, blue-eyed Germans and similar counterparts in Nazi-occupied countries. Norway was a clear favorite because of its Viking gene pool.
The pitiful alienation and identity confusion afflicting the children of such unions, once they were cast off after the war, has been well documented — not least by ABBA singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who was one of them. Two Lives focuses on their postwar exploitation by the East German intelligence service, the Stasi, which both recruited from Lebensborn homes and later planted Stasi agents with fake Lebensborn identities — operatives posing as grown children reuniting with their parents in countries like Norway. Astonishingly, some agents reportedly live on unexposed in Norway to this day.
Katrine, her family and that dead woman in the woods are smack in the middle of this noxious mess, and it's a horrible irony that their chickens come home to roost precisely at a moment of political freedom. Two Lives unfolds in a slow boil of rage at the government that allowed all this emotional destruction. But Maas treats Katrine with compassion, as a victim of forces more damaging than her own ravenous hunger for love and family.
In the end it's her mother's harrowing confusion that hurts most. Ullmann is given very little to say, but the bewildered, cornflower-blue gaze that made her Ingmar Bergman's queen of heartache expresses both stoic endurance and, finally, incomprehension that the unspeakable loss she thought she had laid to rest has returned in nightmare form. You couldn't make this stuff up.