- Traude Krüger
Traude Krüger (Monica Bleibtreu) spends her later years in life as a piano teacher at a women's prison in Germany. But with little support--she pays for tuning herself, and has just four students out of 300 prisoners--her program may soon be cut. After handing out fliers at the funeral of an inmate, Traude eyes the nimble fingers of Jenny von Loeben (Hannah Herzsprung), a young woman with an esteemed piano playing past now doing time for the brutal murder of her former boyfriend.
Their initial lesson doesn't go so well: Jenny's violent outburst sends kind guard Mütze (Sven Pippig) to the emergency room, an act that will come back to haunt her. But Ms. Kruger eventually convinces Jenny to give it a chance: "The lesson I have to offer you requires humility...you'll do what I say and no complaining." The woman's strict hand spills over into her everyday life--she treats Mutze's young daughter and almost everyone else with equal animosity, demanding perfection in all areas (she also chides Jenny for her preferred choice of music: "Don't you ever play that negro music again!"). The source of her bitter loneliness becomes clear as the film progresses, as flashbacks give us a look at Trude's life during World War II.
We also learn more about Jenny's past, including her crime and her father's role in her life. Her talent soon catches the attention of a local newspaper, drawing further ire from her fellow inmates and the prison staff--including strict guard Kowalski (Richy Müller), who initially demands that her hands remained cuffed as she plays. That makes it challenging for Jenny to practice for the upcoming under-21 contest, a goal that Trude-- living vicariously through her young prodigy--seems more passionate about. "If you don't make it here today, you'll never make it," warns the older woman during an early round of competition. "Then you're a coward, Jenny."
Trude tries to convince herself that music--and not Jenny's broken soul--is her priority. But as the two get closer, we get glimmers of hope for both of their angry exteriors. Every character in the film is damaged, and almost all of them are hard to like ("Strange how hard it is for both of us to be friendly," says the wise Trude). The film walks a tight piano string, one where the fear of violence threatens to explode at any second. The moody atmosphere melds music with malice, drawing comparisons to similar works like Fingers and its remake, 2005's The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arête). Four Minutes also has a lot in common with Notes on a Scandal (released later that same year), both films focusing on an unlikely female relationship that escalates into potentially dangerous territory--although the performances here are far more restrained.
Herzsprung and Krüger are fantastic as the combative pair, and each actress shows her character's intense pain and anger in different yet equally effective ways. Four Minutes is grim and beautiful (tinged with bits of equally dark humor to keep you from suffocating), like many musical masterpieces. As it leads to its climax, you hold hope that Jenny will take advantage of her rare opportunity--and that both she and Trude find happiness. The final sequence ends the film on an appropriate note, staying with you long after the curtain falls.