A REVIEW OF THE FILM DAS SOMMERHAUS (2014)
Das Sommerhaus is a German drama written and directed by Curtis Burz. It stars Sten Jacobs, Anna Altmann and Jaspar Fuld, and runs 95 mins.
Silence is Violence
by Sam Hall, 20 June 2022
If art were medicine and medicine's worth could be measured by how vile it tasted, then perhaps Das Sommerhaus would amount to something: Feeling hopeful or upbeat? Take two scenes of Sommerhaus and call a doctor if symptoms of life persist. Because while this monotonous, one-dimensional paean to alienation doesn't offer much in the way of art or entertainment, it does offer an inadvertent taste of sympathetic magic. By ritually enacting the desired phenomenon -- grim despair -- it brings to the communal gathering -- the audience -- the very real thing. This film does for wrist-slitting what successful rain dancing does for a crop-hungry village.
The film gives us Markus and Christine Larsen: successful, middle-aged, locked in a loveless marriage with an eleven-year-old personality-bypass approximating the role of daughter. The kid's monochromatic, monosyllabic creeping and watching may suggest that the apple doesn't fall far from its still-born origins. Or it may not. Anyone who cared either way would be betraying this film's commitment to an impregnable surface lacquer of industrial-grade despair.
Markus makes an obligatory, desultory grab at life when he develops an infatuation with Johannes, the good-looking twelve-year-old son of a work colleague. Pederasty is here invoked as an aid toward maximising viewer discomfort. Any attempt to read more into the relationship would require a level of imagination this film eschews. Tonally, there's no difference between the scenes of Markus wooing the boy and Christine giving herself a DIY abortion with a coat hanger -- possibly the one scene with at least some meta meaning.
Technically, the film is fascistic. All main-character dialogue is spoken in the same flat monotone; all dialogue exchanges are short and banal and carefully separated by a three or four or more beats of strained silence. This film strives to boldly take strained silence where no sentient being should ever want to go. The culmination of this thematic obsession comes in a late family meal -- always moments of mute and vaguely menacing mastication. This time the silence is strained to the point where the characters' sutures seem to splitting and weeping before our eyes, a veritable pornography of disconnection and alienation which, in black mirror fashion, celebrates sterility and the life-strangling spread of affected nihilism. All through this film, like Christine, one is forced to ponder life's big questions such as: Where did I put that coat hanger?
The human mind, though, is not a one-note tooth-pull, so you may occasionally find yourself trying to engage this ninety-five-minute root canal as if it contained intimations of life. Be warned, you will be punished for this. But, as trusting neophytes, if we bypass the film's stylistic fascism, we might be tempted to ask after the nature of the growing relationship between Markus and Johannes. Are robot man and robot boy trying to tap some buried life-source in sterile suburbia? Markus certainly seems, even allowing for his mechanical smiles and identikit eyes, to be falling for the boy in classical fashion, the pederastic fashion we've had on the public poetic record for well over two millennia. The boy's response, also classically evocative, is far more ambiguous. It's the film's use of this ambiguity which cements it as a dud of the first order.
Markus's courting of Johannes happens at the titular summer house -- a quaint little gazebo which we experience primarily as a close, private, lushly grown but fastidiously cultivated garden. Boy as beautiful bloom is given a suitably verdant setting. But the garden is claustrophobic, it increasingly strikes us as airless, no leaf-stirring breeze ever arises, and it ends by looking more like an Albrecht Durer drawing rather than the real thing. So, one out of ten for apposite mise en scene, I guess.
Is the relationship between Markus and Johannes a similarly manufactured object, all surface affect and no smoking cigar? When robot boy announces that he's in love with robot man and wants to step up the relationship, Markus retreats in terror. Because he suspects something fake and menacing about the boy's avowal? Because there's something fake and menacing about the Markus's own desire, such that consummation would be a final leap into the abyss? Are there ambiguous motives in Johannes's decision to push for a fully realised pederastic affair, motives not entirely born of the potential for blackmail? But asking these sorts of questions of this film requires a level of projection that would alarm a working psychologist. The Summer House is implacably hostile to character depth and wields it as a form of virtue-signalling. This film wants you to know that it is not afraid to stare unblinking into the abyss. Life's a sad emoji, then you unfriend.
Both the boy and the girl in this film -- the characters as written -- are as believable as zombie monsters coming to get us and eat us all up. Kids brought up in well-off, emotionally bereft environments tend far more to be nervous wrecks, pill-popping anxiety-addicts with shrill demands for attention -- if you can't have real emotion, fake it, preferably hysterically. "Me too!" they are wont to scream in the long and lonely nights. But in this film, the girl's a cold-blooded Hitchcockian knife-wielder and the boy's a stony-eyed operator of ruthlessly cold and calculating will -- not so much unconvincing as lacking the smallest hint of existential justification.
It's certainly rich and worthy terrain to explore -- has been for over seventy years now -- the alienated despair of modern suburbia. Films like American Beauty and Happiness have done good work in the area. Happiness, particularly, shares with The Summer House a strong predilection for pained despair and negative, dysfunctional pederasty. But the characters in Happiness act in surprising but believable and compelling ways. There's no hint of that in the airless, trapped-under-glass Summer House. The only noteworthy thing I took away from this film, with it's silly tacked-on thriller ending, was the feeling that, for the first time in my movie-watching life, I'd been deliberately and cynically trolled. Unfriend me now!