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October 17, 2006

The Sweet and the Sublime

10 days to perfect German with Sweet Land stunner Elizabeth Reaser

Really, Elizabeth Reaser should not have even been at the audition that day. Despite her appreciation for Sweet Land, writer-director Ali Selim's modest, beautifully photographed immigrant love story (opening Wednesday in New York), she acknowledged a sincere reservation about the script. To wit: A third of her dialogue was in German.

"I had no idea what she was saying on the page," Reaser recently told The Reeler, reminiscing from her home base in Manhattan. "Just as there are no subtitles in the movie, there was no translation in the actual script. So I had no idea, but I thought it was so beautiful -- like somehow, I got it anyway. I loved reading it. And it really appeals to my taste in movies in that it's simple and it's quiet and it's confident and it's economical and it just had so much heart. But I thought, 'I can't go and audition for this because I'll look like a buffoon.' "

One agent exhortation later, she was winging it in front of Selim. Not long after that, Reaser locked up the role of Inge Altenberg, Sweet Land's Teutonic transplant whose stateside arrival after World War I stirs fear, sympathy and ultimately romance in a Southern Minnesota farming community. Also starring Alan Cumming and Ned Beatty (and based on a short story by Will Weaver), the film refracts the color and space of Days of Heaven through three generations of antiquarian meanderings; Inge's forbidden courtship with stoic Norwegian Olaf Torvik (Tim Guinee) time-warps into '60s-era flash-forwards and an ironic present-day climax emphasizing the bond between a family and its land.

In keeping with the film's cannier Socialist asides, the labor and passion of Inge's first fall harvest defines her more than any language or culture, and in her performance, Reaser adheres to this identity with the same singular resolve. After all, this woman who wobbles into town with two suitcases and a phonograph to her name hardly symbolizes tabula raza; in no uncertain terms, she has come to contribute and engage.

"We did open auditions in New York, and it was one actress every five minutes," said Selim, an inveterate commercial director making his feature debut with Sweet Land. "A lot of people came in, and I could tell that they were convincing me they knew what they were saying. But Elizabeth came in and I think she really knew what she was saying. She really moved me, and I thought that either she knows what she's saying or she really knows this character. Maybe she is this character. After 16 years of living with this idea of this red-headed German woman who gets off the train, and then she walks in the room?"

No rookie herself (she top-lined Maria Maggenti's Sundance '06 hit Puccini For Beginners and appeared in last year's studio exercises Stay and The Family Stone), Reaser's casting plunged her into a 10-day cram session of preparation. She scoured the phone book for German translators. She transcribed language discs phonetically and committed the sounds to memory as dialogue. "It was like running for your life the entire time," she said, adding that her boyfriend even fled the scene as she dug deeper and deeper into the part. "You have to leap. Of course I'd love to have six months with (dialect coach) Tim Monich or a German person or something. But at some point you just have to take the leap and be prepared to be criticized."

In the end, however, there's not much to criticize. Reaser's body language might occasionally brush too close against a slouching Gen-X outrage, but when Cumming -- as Olaf's happy-go-unlucky neighbor -- frowns to his friend, "Are you sure you want to marry this woman?", the actress's overriding determination defies you to sympathize with the men. Guinee and Beatty also shine, the latter as a cutthroat local banker on the move to repossess the immigrants' farms.

Reaser credited Selim with establishing a set on which her and her colleagues' work could flourish -- not always the case on tiny indie projects like this. "I didn't even feel like I was making a movie half the time," she said. "Ali just created this space for us to do our thing. I didn't he was doing so much I didn't even see at the time. It almost didn't even feel like a movie. It just felt like we were out on these farms all day hanging out and it was just very quiet. But I like doing independent films; I like that you don't have a lot of time and that you have to rise to the occasion and that everybody has to step up. I love that. And it can be really bad sometimes; you can be sitting somewhere for 10 hours waiting to shoot with nowhere to go to the bathroom. But amazing things can be created."

Indeed they can -- even in German.





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