Traude Krüger is an elderly piano teacher working as a piano teacher in a German prison where the administration clearly considers her superfluous. Jenny is a teenage prisoner, hardened by experience and resigned to spending the rest of her life in prison. Both have hidden stories however.
In a series of flashbacks, it is suggested that Traude (Monica Bleibtreu) had a lesbian affair with a Communist who was subsequently executed during or immediately before the war, though as far as we can tell she was a loyal Nazi herself; we surmise that her lingering guilt about this (the likely betrayal rather than the politics) contributes to her bitterness. She is not a sympathetic character. For her part, Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung) was a piano prodigy who was regularly taken on tour as a child by her abusive step-father. As she grew older, the abuse got more vicious till she snapped, refusing to perform and eventually ending up in the prison system, either on account of, or precipitating, her propensity for violence.
Things don’t start well between the two women; both are too brittle to get along, and Jenny explodes in a violent rage. But in this rage she plays the piano and reveals her talent – and her one remaining emotional attachment. Each woman thus finds in the other a focus for their shared passion, and a psychic escape from a meaningless everyday life. Frau Krüger makes it explicit to Jenny that their relationship is based purely on music, and not any any kind of mutual regard or affection. In fact, they don’t even share the same musical passion. Traude is strictly interested in classical – more specifically German Romantic – music, while Jenny improvises what Frau Krüger calls ‘worthless negro music’. But each needs the other, and the two work together to get Jenny through a prestigious piano competition.
The film’s jagged, jazzy original music by Annette Focks is striking, but perhaps overburdened, especially in the climactic final scene, which creates the expectation of truly great music. That said, Hannah Herzsprung is impressive throughout as Jenny, her intense, brooding performance helping us to suspend our disbelief and accept the musical genius of her character. While that final scene has Jenny in an evening dress and clunky boots, switching from Schumann to improvisation (Focks), the contrast between musical styles is not overplayed any more than the ‘odd couple’ aspect of the central relationship (except in a comic scene in which they’re forced to swap clothes). Music is music, and both Jenny and Traude recognise the musician in one another.
Indeed, the idea of music as the expression of inner rage, and ultimately the musician’s authentic self, owes more to Romanticism than punk; Traude herself seems to represent the German musical tradition as much as to teach music. For all the film’s ‘training montages’ (with Jenny battering on a marked-up desk when she’s denied access to the prison piano, etc), the emphasis is very much on tortured genius rather than hard graft and discipline. Reasonably enough, drama comes before a realistic account of musical craft. Music is primarily Jenny’s way of asserting herself against the society that has failed her.
In the end, Four Minutes bears an unlikely resemblance to the Eminem movie 8 Mile (2002). Just as Eminem’s character Rabbit invests himself completely in his ‘one shot’ – the few minutes he has to express himself in a rap competition – Jenny must live a whole life in the four minutes she has to perform at the piano competition. If the musical performance is not wholly convincing, the cinematic one is much more so. Leaving aside quibbles over the music, and overcomplicated backstories, Four Minutes succeeds much like a superior sports movie, giving us a character to root for, and maintaining our sympathy through to an air-punching conclusion.