This movie is like discovering you have one more of your favorite treats left than you thought. Or, it’s like trying a variation of your favorite treat and realizing it’s even more delicious than you thought possible. Whatever. My similes may not be watertight, but watching Sachertorte is definitely a delight. To a large degree, the movie follows the tried-and-true rom-com comfort formula, but with all the pretense, subterfuge, misogyny, and hijinks stripped away, leaving only an open, honest, frank, and touching portrayal of a starry-eyed search for love.
Karl (Max Hubacher) is living a happy, if somewhat chaotic, life in Berlin. He lives with his brother Matze (Samuel Koch) and pretty much with Matze’s girlfriend Lena (Sarah Elena Koch) because she’s there most of the time. Samuel Koch, who plays Matze, uses a wheelchair, which is presented matter-of-factly in the movie, and this made me let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. There’s a moment when Matze reminds Karl how much he wanted to fix Matze after his initial injury. It’s a brief interaction, but it felt so genuine and forthright. This! This is why disability representation matters in movies.
Anyway, Karl writes questions for a quiz show, which is a job he enjoys but also doesn’t take too seriously. One morning, as he’s running late for work, he meets a stranger named Nini (Michaela Saba), who he finds very attractive, while waiting in line for sausages (not a euphemism). It turns out she’s only in the city for a few more hours before she catches the bus back to Vienna, and on a whim they run off together to see the city. When he happens to spy his boss on the street, he unceremoniously pulls her into the first doorway he sees, which just so happens to be a bridal shop.
They lie their way into a wedding dress fitting and cake tasting, where they share bits of information about themselves—they both love the movie Before Sunrise and she always goes to Sacher Café in Vienna on her birthday with her father at precisely 3pm—until the real couple shows up and they both must bolt, and Nini must run to catch her bus. Their time together has been fleeting, but their connection feels electric and important and possibly life changing to both of them. She enters her number into his phone, but doesn’t save it, and tells him to call, but as the bus pulls away his irked boss calls and her number is reabsorbed into the binary ether. Distraught and determined to find her, he goes to the bus station and convinces a woman working there to call the bus steward and have her paged on the bus. Sadly, she’s wearing headphones and staring moonily out the window, wondering why he hasn’t called or texted, so she doesn’t hear the bus steward announcing that a Mr. Before Sunrise is looking for a Ms. Sachertorte. When this plan fails, he hops a flight to Vienna, hoping to catch her as she’s getting off the bus, and he would have made it, if not for an unforeseen entanglement with a dog, the dog’s leash, and the dog’s owner. By the time he extricates himself, Nini is gone.
He heads back to Berlin, but can’t stop thinking that she could have been the love of his life. The only thing for him to do, he decides, is move to Vienna and go to Sacher Café every day at 3pm. Eventually it will be her birthday, and then they will be reunited. It’s a ludicrous plan, but it’s buyable because he’s young and idealistic and also because everything else in his life remains mostly grounded. He convinces his boss to allow him to continue his job from Vienna. He finds a room in an apartment with some odd, but well-meaning guys. And he goes about his life in Vienna, except that every day at 2:30 when his alarm rings, he stops everything to head to the café and wait. The odds of her showing up, he assures the doubters, will only get better with each passing day.
Now, there are many jokes about language and culture that whizzed right by my head. I mean, I got the basic framework that people from Vienna don’t like people from Berlin (or really anywhere but Vienna), so there are lots of jokes and asides about that. In one part, Karl orders some sausages and beer from a food truck and the man tells him he has to order from the menu. According to the subtitles Karl then repeats exactly the same thing, but clearly some joke has been made about language or pronunciation or accent. It won’t ruin your watching of the movie if you, like me, don’t catch these things, but I’m pretty sure it will deepen your viewing if you get them.
His first visit to Sacher Café is nearly his last because he doesn’t notice the long line of people waiting outside for a table and thus upsets Herr Schwartz (Karl Fischer), the somewhat stuffy manager. He’s saved from immediate expulsion when Fanny Sawallisch (Krista Stadler)—herself an institution within the institution of the Sacher Café—invites him to sit at her table. Fanny, an elegant older woman who lives in the hotel adjacent to the café, tells Karl how the Sacher Café used to be the place to be, which you can feel with it’s red velvet lined booths, tuxedos servers, large plate glass windows, but now it’s mostly visited by tourists. She remains, though, sitting at the same reserved table every day, ordering the same drink, the same newspaper, calling the servers by name, and treating them with the same respect they offer her. Soon enough, other people who work at the café, like Zora (Ruth Brauer), catch on to what Karl is doing and rally behind his romantic cause. Each day Zora assures him that Nini will most certainly come tomorrow, urging him not to lose faith.
Fanny, though, with her ample experience, is less caught up in the romance. She becomes, in some sense, his guide toward reality. When he orders his first sachertorte, which is considered a delicacy in Vienna, she asks him how it is. He replies that it’s yummy. She gives him a horrified look before explaining that a sachertorte can be a dream or delicious or exquisite, but never just yummy. She also urges him to try the apple strudel, which she insists is perfect—and I love this blunt force trauma to the head kind of allusion to the fact that the thing we’re so fixated on and everyone says is what you should want, may not in fact be the best fit for you. In another scene Karl and Fanny watch as a young couple get engaged in the café. “You look like you’re going to cry,” Fanny says to Karl. He shrugs before responding that “it’s like a movie.” She smiles sadly and says, “Let’s hope the movie has a happy ending.” He shakes his head confused and says, “That’s the happy ending.” And she chuckles softly before saying, “That? That’s just the beginning.” We all need a Fanny whispering in our ear. Another time she tells him that he can’t just go searching for love. “It will find you on its own.” She adds that “the trick is not to miss it when it finds you.” That Fanny is a font of good information, plus she has her own whole will-they-won’t-they with Herr Schwartz, which is quite unexpectedly dear to watch. Is the older, widowed, capable, opinionated older woman my favorite character? Need you even ask?
Meanwhile, the rest of Karl’s life moves forward. His roommates gently heckle him for being from Berlin, but also accept him and support his long-shot effort to find love this way. What they can’t provide is stable internet. There is only enough bandwidth for three users and Karl is inevitably the odd man out, which is a real bummer because his job demands internet access. He finds a small café that just happens to be owned and operated by the woman whose dog tripped him up at the bus station when he first came to Vienna. Can you believe it? You certainly can when you see her red hair cropped into an appealing bob with bangs, her broad smile, and the slightly far-off look she gets when her eyes linger on Karl too long. This second meeting goes less than well, as you might expect between two people who are destined for each other in a movie like this one. So, it’s really a pitch perfect meeting. He thinks she screwed up his chances of finding the love of his life. She thinks he’s being ridiculous…and also kind of hot. But, a man’s need for the internet knows no shame, so he ends up sleeping in her café’s doorway overnight while trying to finish his work. And when she finds him there in the gray dawn with garbage trucks rumbling by, she takes pity on him and lets him inside. They become friends, tentatively at first and then robustly. She shows him around the city—he refuses to go farther afield because he always has to be at the Sacher Café by 3pm sharp. He spends mornings in her café, working while she bakes. They go on walks where she tells him that she doesn’t want to have a man how she imagines him, but that “to love means to see them as they are.” They dare to do more and different things together, and things in their relationship perhaps tilt and shift. They both feel it, but neither of them speaks of it because he is there to find Nini at the Sacher Café and she is only his friend, not the woman of his dreams. In all this time, they never exchange phone numbers.
Things will reach a breaking point, things will reach a realization point, things will reach a point of no return, and things will reach an end. This is not a movie where there is a villain, or even a need for one. This is not a movie of comparisons. This is not a movie where it is a woman who has romantic visions that will eventually collide with reality. This is not a movie where the plot is filled with jump scares and wild twists. You don’t need them at all. Instead, you have openness and honesty. This is a movie about people being themselves through and through. This is a movie where women are always presented as competent equals who do not need to sacrifice or contort themselves for romance. No one loses themselves or finds themselves or figures out who they are. It’s really just about living their lives and being themselves and learning to see and grab love before the moment passes. In writing that might sound sluggish and boring, but on the screen in this movie it provides the perfect pace and excitement. It’s a movie that acknowledges grand romantic gestures, but also recognizes that often love is found in the absolutely mundane. Fireworks and whirlwinds and dizzying runs to catch flights are exciting, but sometimes love at its best is being able to be yourself with someone who you also love for exactly who they are. And sometimes, even when everyone can’t stop raving about the sachertorte, you might prefer the apple strudel.