A young couple learns their unborn child has Down syndrome and a heart defect. They're faced with the most difficult decision of their lives in "24 Weeks" - a film that forces viewers to rethink their convictions.
Berlinale audiences were left spellbound after watching the Italian documentary "Fuocoammare" about the situation of refugees on Lampedusa. Just a day later, the German competition entry "24 weeks" left the audience speechless once again.
"24 weeks," the graduation project of young director Anne Zohra Berrached, tells the story of a young couple, Astrid (Julia Jentsch) and Markus (Bjarne Mädel), who find out during a routine pre-natal examination that their unborn child has Down syndrome.
A second diagnosis and a horrible decision
After the parents, who already have a daughter, opt to go through with the pregnancy, further pre-natal testing reveals yet another severe deformity of the child: a heart abnormality would require several operations immediately after birth.
Astrid and Markus are struggling with a heart-wrenching decision: Should they have a late-term abortion even if that means killing the fetus in the womb with a potassium chloride injection?
Director Anne Zohra Berrached spent months meticulously researching the divisive issue of late pregnancy termination.
Abortions after the 12th week are only legal in Germany if the physical or psychological health of the mother is in danger - due, for example, to the stress of bearing a handicapped child - or if rape was involved.
In these cases, a termination of pregnancy is possible all the way up to birth. "In this way, 'destiny' becomes an ethical, legal and philosophical question," says the Berrached. "Parents have the choice over life and death."
A choice they do not have, however, is to not make a decision.
Convincing interaction of professionals and amateurs
Throughout her research, Berrached worked with patients and doctors, medical specialists and other experts. The medical staff in the film is played not by actors, but by real doctors. This blend of fiction and reality is further underlined by a lot of improvisation on set, adding to the authenticity of "24 weeks."
"During the shooting, my primary goal was to make the interaction of amateur and professional performers invisible, real and authentic," says the young director.
She has certainly reached that goal. With an incredible intensity, Julia Jentsch, Bjarne Mädel, and the rest of the professional and amateur cast bring the characters on the screen to life. There isn't a single scene in the extreme situation seems contrived. The director says she aimed to tell the story with meticulous precision, directness and force.
Just a few minutes into the film, viewers is forced to think about how they would react in a similar situation.
"'24 Weeks' confronts the audience with a question that people can only answer for themselves," the director emphasizes.
An extreme situation calls for extreme decisions
The filmmaker leaves enough room for both positions - for those who would tend to decide for a late abortion, as embodied in the film by Jentsch's mother, but also for those who put human life above all else.
"The spectators who have decided that they reject abortions are forced to emotionally follow a woman doing exactly what they have demonized," says Berrached. The film depicts an extreme situation leading to an extreme decision, she adds.
Actress Julia Jentsch stresses that, first of all, it was important to talk about the issue. "24 weeks" deals with a topic that is still a taboo, adding that it would be talked about openly so that we can develop a greater understanding for the things that other people go through.
Moral conflict results from medical progress
"One result of technological progress and ever improving diagnostics is that sometimes we are faced with decisions for which there are no moral guidelines," says Anne Zohra Berrached. "I'm interested in the moral conflict resulting from our modern medical world."
This film is unlikely to leave a single viewer untouched. The fact that the young director has found a suitable cinematic form for her difficult topic adds to her achievement.
Next to "Fuocoammare," "24 weeks" is another hot candidate for wining a Golden Bear during the 66th Berlinale. The awards will be presented on Saturday, February 20.