Dying Review: A Sprawling Family Saga Both Mesmerizing and Meandering

Epic Exploration of Mortality And Dysfunctional Lineage Overreaches But Rewards Patience

Clocking in at a whopping three hours, Dying is an epic portrayal of family dysfunction and mortality from German director Matthias Glasner. This sprawling drama-comedy hybrid chronicles the travails of the Lunies clan as matriarch Lissy and patriarch Gerd contend with failing health and their emotionally distant adult children Tom and Ellen wrestle personal demons.

We’re introduced to the elderly Lissy and Gerd in a grim opening scene that finds ailing Lissy covered in her own filth while Gerd wanders the neighborhood pantsless. It’s gallows humor territory as their indignities mount, before the film pivots to follow conductor Tom amid a midlife crisis of sorts in Berlin. The black comedy continues with hard-partying alcoholic Ellen, whose self-destructive impulses land her in random countries with no memory of how she got there.

Glasner deftly walks a tonal tightrope, wringing both laughs and pathos out of this family’s ever-escalating dysfunction. Prepare for a wild ride with the Lunies gang across three hours of intergenerational angst.

A Dysfunctional Brood

At the dysfunctional heart of Dying lies the fractured Lunies clan. There’s elderly couple Lissy and Gerd, whose physical and mental deterioration kickstarts the family crisis. Then there’s their middle-aged children: Tom, an orchestra conductor trying to shepherd his friend’s new composition to its premiere, and Ellen, a reckless alcoholic working as a dental hygienist.

As matriarch Lissy battles cancer, diabetes and near blindness with bitterly comic aplomb, her husband Gerd’s dementia reduces him to a confused, pantless wanderer prone to public indecency. Their predicament worsens as Lissy suffers a heart attack and Gerd lands in assisted living, receiving only the occasional perfunctory visit from son Tom.

For his part, Tom has plenty on his plate already between work and his tangled personal life. He’s still carrying a torch for ex Liv, who wants Tom to co-parent her newborn daughter despite not rekindling their romance. Cue awkward tension as Tom tries to bond with the baby. Meanwhile at work, Tom contends with his brooding, depressive composer friend Bernard, who keeps fine-tuning his latest composition ‘Dying’ as its premiere nears.

Wild child Ellen, however, remains disconnected from her relatives as she drinks away her days. A dysfunctional work affair with her married boss at least provides fleeting comfort. But her self-imposed isolation leaves her absent from pivotal family events like her father’s funeral.

As Lissy’s death looms, can what’s left of the Lunies clan confront their emotional baggage before it’s too late? Dying explores those family ties that bind…often in unhealthy ways.

Mortality and Mirth

Beyond chronicling one family’s interpersonal struggles, Dying tackles weighty universal themes of mortality, dysfunctional legacies, and regret with a surprising dose of dark comedy. As Lissy and Gerd’s health fails, the prospect of their looming deaths haunts the margins of every scene. Yet Glasner refuses to wallow in misery, instead highlighting the absurdity in life’s painful indignities. The viewer may cringe one minute as Lissy cleans her soiled body, then chuckle the next at her deadpan response to a concerned neighbor.

Dying Review

This delicate tonal balance between tragedy and comedy intensifies in revealing scenes between mother and son. When Lissy bluntly tells Tom she never loved him and likely injured him as a baby, the palpable pain as his worldview shatters mixes with biting humor at Lissy’s nonchalant delivery of this bombshell. We witness two people clearly damaged by their lineage yet unable to fully break the dysfunctional bonds of family.

The film also examines the artistic drive to create lasting works that express deep truths about mortality and grief, best exemplified through Tom and Bernard’s musical collaboration. But Dying questions the likelihood of clearly imparting messages to an audience, versus descending into kitsch or banality.

Ultimately this moving human drama suggests we cannot escape the emotional baggage inherited from preceding generations – but with humor and humility, we may find catharsis in the shared absurdity of life nonetheless.

A Musical Tonal Symphony

Glasner employs a novelistic chapter structure in Dying, with intertitles dividing the film into distinct movements focusing on specific characters. While centering primarily on the perspectives of Lissy, Tom, and Ellen in turn, these segments overlap to craft a rich familial tapestry.

The film also derivation much power from its musical interludes, both diegetic performances and a poignant folk-influenced score. Extended scenes depict Tom’s orchestra rehearsing and debuting Bernard’s new composition “Dying,” allowing contemplative debates around the artistic process itself and the merits of accessibility versus avant-garde complexity. These sequences also showcase Dying’s strongest performances.

As matriarch Lissy, Corinna Harfouch turns in a tour de force of physicality and deadpan delivery. One can sense lifetimes of regret behind her cadaverous stare, leavened by wry humor even at her lowest moments. As her estranged son Tom, Lars Eidinger radiates crisp conductorial authority alongside palpable anguish in pivotal confrontations with his mother.

Relative newcomer Lilith Stangenberg makes a remarkable impression as wild child Ellen, fully inhabiting her character’s dissipated alcoholic haze. She movingly channels Ellen’s loneliness through the soaring vocals displayed in her musical interludes. The whole ensemble shines under Glasner’s steady directorial hand, deftly harmonizing Dying’s shifting tones.

An Overambitious Undertaking

As an intimate epic clocking in at three hours, Dying bites off more than it can fully chew. Such a sprawling runtime risks losing momentum, especially when combined with a segmented chapter structure that doesn’t always cohere. While the film remains engrossing during its high points, energy flags noticeably in slower-paced sections.

The disjointed structure also creates tonal disunity and uneven pacing. After a slam-bang start establishing matriarch Lissy’s plight, the focus shifts abruptly to Tom’s artistic and romantic woes in Berlin. The long delay before introducing chaotic alcoholic Ellen also disrupts the flow. Once she arrives, her storyline captivates but feels divorced from the overall familial web.

Some of the supporting narrative threads likewise fail to compel amidst the lunar pull of Lissy, Tom and Ellen’s dynamics. Tom’s romantic entanglement with ex Liv generates soap opera squabbles rather than insightful illumination of character. And his scenes working with brooding composer Bernard tend to drag despite offering thematic meat.

In the end, Dying reaches for profound grandeur in its exploration of family legacies, but provides too much of a flawed good thing. Trimming the length or tightening the structure may have helped an ambitious work that shines in fits and starts achieve more consistent rewards worthy of its lofty goals.

A Mixed Family Fugue

Boasting standout performances and penetrating emotional insights, Dying still tries to cram overly much dysfunction into its swollen three-hour runtime. This sprawling multi-character study succeeds tremendously in poignant moments, especially exchanges between matriarch Lissy and son Tom. Lead actors Corinna Harfouch and Lars Eidinger shine in roles that allow them to bare their characters’ deepest regrets and family wounds with caustic humor.

Other movement, however, lose momentum or fail to fully connect. The film struggles at times to juggle its interweaving story threads amidst abrupt tonal and perspective shifts. Overlong supporting storylines detract from the central grim yet mordantly funny portrait of an alienated family unable to outrun its dysfunctional inheritance.

Uneven pacing and structural issues notwithstanding, Dying remains an ambitious swing for the fences. Fans of high-pedigree European relationship dramas will find much to admire, from the evocative musical interludes to the sterling ensemble’s raw emotional excavations.

This sprawling saga may test viewers’ patience, but those who stick it out will be rewarded by inspired, indelible moments only possible in Glasner’s rigorously crafted epic format. While the lengthy orchestration doesn’t fully cohere, the glorious passages make wading through the dense familial fugue worthwhile.

The Review


7 Score

Dying overreaches in its sprawling exploration of family dysfunction, resulting in an uneven epic that dazzles and drags in equal measure. But profoundly moving high notes make its intermittent ponderousness worthwhile.


  • Powerful lead performances (Harfouch, Eidinger, Stangenberg)
  • Moments of raw emotional honesty and dark humor
  • Thematic ambition in tackling mortality, regret, dysfunctional families
  • Evocative musical pieces and performances


  • Overly long 3-hour runtime leads to fatigue
  • Disjointed narrative structure and pacing
  • Uneven mix of compelling and dull supporting storylines

Review Breakdown

  • Overall 7
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