Who knew that Nina Hoss could be so warm and nurturing? My Little Sister lets the German actress reveal a new facet of her personality. Playing Lisa, a former playwright and German ex-pat living in Switzerland, one would hardly recognize the actor known for playing stern, guarded women in films like Phoenix, Barbara, and The Audition. Hoss creates with Lisa a woman eager to let her coldness melt away. Lisa devotes herself entirely to her ailing twin brother, Sven (Lars Eidinger, High Life), risking her own marriage and family for her closest friend. However, beneath Lisa’s kindness resides a selfish streak familiar to artists: tragedy is the stuff of inspiration.
My Little Sister, Switzerland’s entry in the Best International Feature Oscar race, is an enigmatic family drama. Lisa is near fanatical in her attention to Sven. She keeps a strict eye on his care, micromanages her mother’s cooking, and won’t let anyone smoke near him. It initially seems like pure and selfless devotion. She and Sven, an actor, even revisit their former theatre troupe when back in Berlin to pay respect to their second family. Lisa recognizes that acting is medicine for a performer’s soul. She pleads with her director to let Sven play Hamlet in the company’s revival. However, her director insists that he’d never let a dying man take the stage. A dead playwright—in this case, Shakespeare—is one thing, but it’s too much of a liability if Hamlet keels over for real before an audience.
Death of a Writer
As Lisa returns to Switzerland where her husband, Martin (Jens Albinus) teaches at a posh private school, she yearns for Berlin. Two dramatic twists—one involving David and one with Martin—intersect during a night out at a gala event. Lisa finds herself torn between the two men she loves most, and her loyalties knotted when a thrillingly-shot parasailing accident the following day (how Swiss!) radically alters the situation. She prescribes theatre to save her brother. Committing herself to writing a one-man show for Sven, Lisa desperately tries to extend her brother’s life through words.
However, the practice hinges on her desire to return to the theatre. Lisa’s disconnect is less about Sven’s survival and more about her own. Few playwrights have Shakespeare’s longevity. Any writer whose work lies unperformed is all but dead to the world. Betraying her brother while also giving him the nourishment he needs, Lisa becomes a captivating figure of both fragility and strength.
An Emotional Avalanche
Directors Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond draw upon their own relationship that is intimately linked to their creative impulses. The lifelong friends envelop Lisa and Sven’s rapport with theatre through elements of performance. More about their lives becomes performative and the performances themselves become grander, from simmering restraint to full-blown emotions by the film’s end, as My Little Sister navigates the cost of creative inspiration. The directors harness the serenity of the brightly lit Alpine settings to express the disassociation that Lisa experiences. In Hoss’s hands, Lisa is both warm in her devotion to Sven and cold in the impulses that drive her.
My Little Sister creates an emotional avalanche that befits its Alpine setting as the siblings confront their respective deaths. (Sven’s is literal; Lisa’s figurative.) Hoss and Eidinger has strong chemistry to convincing convey the intimate bond that twins share, realising that in some ways one’s closest connection can be one’s closest rival, but never forgetting that a twin is the best friend a sibling could ever have. Hoss is, as always, utterly beguiling as she creates a character who transforms as she peels back new layers. Lisa is the victim of her own tragedy before it is too late, ultimately reclaims her craft by the film’s unnervingly satisfying end.
My Little Sister opens in select virtual cinemas including TIFF on Jan. 15.