Three very different women from former Yugoslavia try to get by in Zurich in Das Fräulein (Fraulein) from Swiss director of Yugoslav-origins Andrea Stacka. Featuring outstanding performances from the protagonists and a keen eye for detail, the film continues to expand the cinematic exploration of the heritage of the Balkan Wars from a female point of view after Berlinale-winner Grbavica (which also starred Mirjana Karanovic). Being less overly melodramatic and more cinematic in its language than Grbavica but lacking the prestige of a Golden Bear (though it did win the Golden Leopard in Locarno), Das Fräulein should stand about an equal chance of finding niche distribution in arthouses across the continent.
In the pre-title sequence, Balkan folk music plays, as a hand is seen pruning branches from a bare tree. The message is clear: the branches can be removed to stimulate growth and fruition in the future, but the roots stay where they are. Ruza (Karanovic) runs a canteen in Zurich and leads the classical example of an orderly but lonely life -- without heartbreak but also without passion. She is originally from Belgrade but arrived in Switzerland before the Balkan Wars. In her kitchen works the elderly Mila (Ljubica Jovic), who is from the Croatian coast and is married and has her children and husband in Zurich. She saves all her money for a house they are constructing back home. Into their lives comes the force of nature Ana (Marija Skaricic), a young girl who lived through the siege of Sarajevo and who seems to want to live each moment as if it were here last.
Stacka, who also wrote the screenplay for Das Fräulein, uses this basic premise to weave together a tapestry of three women who are all on foreign ground and have experiences in common though the country they were born in does no longer exist as one unity. In the film’s strongest scene, Ruza and Ana -- who on the surface seem to be two polar opposites in character, age and experience -- have punch together in a mountaintop café. Here Stacka hits all the rights notes, cleverly using apparently innocent dialogue to not only advance the plot and reveal character but also to talk about the story’s more buried themes of nationalism and homesickness at the same time. Elsewhere, Stacka uses surprising shots and mise-en-scene to drive home her points: a single-take overhead shot of a dancing woman is beyond delirious, but illustrates her ecstasy as well as anything.
Though some symbolism involving a casino and a late plot contrivance that influences the film’s outcome do seem to lead the story into the arena of melodrama, on the whole Das Fräulein is thankfully devoid of tear-inducing material. Instead, it touches on some themes that are much more abstract but therefore perhaps also more satisfying when visualised (as they are here): immigrant life, regrets, living between two cultures and surviving wars, love, family and other catastrophes.