Ina Weisse’s The Audition (Das Vorspiel) operates most often in binary, oppositional structures created by its indecisive protagonist; a violinist, teacher, wife and mother named Anna (a fantastic Nina Hoss). At the exclusive Berlin musical academy where Anna works, she is demanding, exacting and nearly aloof — unfriendly with coworkers, strict with students. At home, with her luthier husband Philippe (Simon Abkarian) and their son Jonas (Serafin Mishiev), Anna is a little more affectionate. But more often than not, she vacillates between hardness and softness, and between the woman she thought she could be and the woman she now is.
The Audition inserts viewers into its world with an opening scene that divides the judges from the judged. Weisse begins with a stage perspective sequence as a woman leafs through papers and someone takes notes. Music begins to play, pinpointing the movie’s audience as the performer; the lead judge puts up his hand — a polite “thank you” marking the end of the audition. Then, Weisse shifts the focus to the judges’ perspective, to the responsibility of considering others. The setup effectively demonstrates the structure of power within this school, and locates Anna within it as a woman whose opinion matters. When she argues with the other judges about a teen student, Alexander (Ilja Monti), whose audition isn’t perfect but still promising, she gets her way.
After the other judges acquiesce, Anna takes sole responsibility. For six months, Alexander will train personally with her. If he nails his next audition, he’ll be offered a scholarship and a permanent spot at the school. “I think we have to set the bar a bit higher,” one of the other judges had said of Alexander, and Anna is determined to prove the woman wrong. Every element of Alexander’s performance is up for her critique — how he holds his bow, how high up his shoulder goes, how he moves his finger, how fast he plays. “Again. No. Again. No.” Anna is ruthless.
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Those high standards, required for Anna’s work, are also what nudge her further and further away from her family. She meets Philippe at a restaurant for a casual lunch, and it becomes a production in uncertainty. Anna makes a waiter move their table twice, she changes her drink order over and over. Anna chases down the waiter to interrogate him again about the menu, and then she accepts Philippe’s offer to swap meals because she began eating his. At home, Anna bounces between lecturing Jonas on devoting more time to the violin and telling him he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to. In these moments, Hoss communicates a woman unsure of practically everything about herself, from what she actually wants to eat to what kind of mother she wants to be. The indecision shows on Anna’s face and in the rigidity with which she holds her body ram-rod straight. Does she want the gluttony of a steak, or the practicality of spaghetti with vegetables? Does Anna want to push her son further, forcing him to give up hockey and concentrate only on violin, or does she want to honor his own desires? The concept of what makes a “good” teacher vs. a “good” mother is examined in The Audition, and Hoss brings impressive nuance to those various, sometimes contrasting, roles.
As The Audition progresses, Weisse expands the story to different locations — Anna’s childhood home, where she witnesses her father play a casually cruel prank on her son; the apartment where a quartet that Anna has been invited to join is practicing — to round out the viewer’s understanding of this woman and the myriad forces that have shaped her. Weisse is thoughtful in wondering how elements like an unhappy childhood, an injury and various stifled ambitions have shaped Anna, but she makes space for others, too. Philippe’s skill at constructing and repairing instruments, and the pride he takes in his work, is given due attention; Jonas’s jealousy of Alexander builds over time. There is tangible tension throughout all these relationships, with unspoken words weighing heavily over husband and wife, over mother and son. When Anna says “I didn’t say a thing, not a thing” to Philippe in response to his “Make a decision,” her frustration with herself is obvious.
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Anna just can’t help herself, and Hoss captivates as The Audition examines the various ways Anna’s compulsion manifests: in her pushing of Alexander, in her treatment of her family and in her own understanding of herself. The fear of failure looms over it all — the specter that Anna can’t escape — and a late-film twist adds a layer of moral ambiguity that further complicates Anna’s divisive worldview. That swerve takes The Audition in an unexpected direction that might have benefited from another 10 or so minutes of exploration, but thematically, it fits into the film’s questions about what we can control and what we have to let go. The Audition considers how we navigate the middle space between power and powerlessness, and Hoss’ performance, whether she’s yearning for affection or responsible for staggering brutality, is the film’s greatest asset.
Roxana Hadadi (@roxana_hadadi) writes about film, television and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.