The Return of the Daughter

An engrossing portrait of a life both real and manufactured – set against a Cold War backdrop – and the shattering effects on one family long after the Berlin Wall divided a nation.

SnapShot Plot

Loosely based on the novel, Eiszeiten, by Hannelore Hippe (itself based on an unsolved murder in Norway), the political thriller Two Lives (Zwai Leben) features the resonant Juliane Köhler as Katrine Evensen Myrdal, a loving wife, mother, and daughter cast against the legend herself, Liv Ullmann. In a delicate performance that emphasizes how much can be expressed with hardly a word, Ullmann portrays Ase Evenson, the aging matriarch of a loving and attentive family. But there’s a dark past to this mother-daughter story.

Here’s the history lesson I learned about Norway during WWII: how countless babies and children, fathered by occupying Nazi SS officers encouraged to conceive them, were snatched away from their Norwegian mothers and sent to Germany to be raised as models of an Aryan-Nordic bloodline, who it was hoped would become super breeders and reverse the declining birthrate in the Motherland. And No, this isn’t another dystopian Hollywood screenplay. This actually happened. The secret program was the brainchild of that notorious Nazi charmer, Heinrich Himmler and was called “Lebensborn” (Fountain of Life).

Two Lives takes place in 1990 in Norway and Germany over the course of a few weeks. Katrine’s busy, happy life comes to an abrupt pause with the arrival of a young lawyer hoping to enlist hers and her mother’s testimonies to be used in a massive class action lawsuit against the government of Norway over the Lebensborn atrocity. You see, according to all accounts, Katrine and Ase were the only mother-daughter reunion to have taken place, so their participation is critical to the outcome of the trial. As soon as the lawyer arrives on her doorstep, Katrine realizes that her world as she knows it will never be the same, and we see her embark on a series of spy-craft missions, each one more mysterious than the last, which finally make sense about two thirds into the film. Stick with it, though, because this is not a roller-coaster suspense ride; it’s more of a slow burn with an emotional climax that will linger in your mind for the moral and ethical dilemmas which make it impossible to entirely condemn or forgive Katrine for the path her life has taken.


Parting Shot

Writer/Director Georg Maas, known for his documentary work, spent years crafting this story, and it shows. The film made the shortlist of entries to the 2013 Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category(from Germany) yet didn’t make the final cut . . . a mistake, in my opinion. The performances are great across the board, the photography and musical score heighten the somber and, ultimately, dangerous mood of the picture and yet it’s never heavy-handed. The film could just as easily been titled, Two Germanies, as the post-war split between the GDR and West Germany is an obvious metaphor for Katrine’s own divided self and the ultimate, fateful division her past will thrust upon her family.

Two Lives is also a chilling example of the long-lasting ripple effects of the terror trade upon a nation’s people, long after walls come tumbling down and new countries are formed, whose sinister forces still hover in the background, willing and able to remove any threat to their long cover of secrecy.

For more info on the Lebensborn program, visit:

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