The German debut feature The Garden (Sommerhauser), from director Sonja Maria Kroener, is as specific a time capsule as its English-language title is generic. It is set in 1976 West Germany, during a languid summer that sees three generations of a family come together — and frequently squabble and bicker — after the death of their matriarch. Just one of the points of contention is the dead woman’s sprawling, leafy and sun-dappled estate that’s home to the “summer houses,” or vacation cottages, of the original title, where the various family members are staying during that year’s dog days.
Relaxed in its rhythms but not in its outlook, which is at once universal and pleasingly specific, and admirably loose-limbed yet densely packed with details, this impressively acted and assembled first film won both the best producer and director prizes at the recent Munich fest. This bodes well both for its local bow and for future international exposure, though a less generic, more evocative international moniker could push this into even more festivals and perhaps even an offshore theatrical engagement or two.
A luxurious family drama.
Things begin ominously, with a tree that was felled by lightning on the day of great-grandma’s burial. But rather tellingly, Kroener isn’t interested in either the potentially spectacular theatrics of the lightning hitting the tree or the possibly emotional histrionics of the funeral, which both duly occur off-screen. Instead, for all of its running time, the film stays within the confines of the late woman’s somewhat rundown estate, opening with the tree already down and then going on to capture all the subtler moments in between the two extremes the filmmaker so explicitly avoided.
Septuagenarian Ilse (Ursula Werner, from 2008 Un Certain Regard coup de coeur Cloud Nine) is the new matriarch of sorts, if only because she was closest to her (never seen) mother, taking care of her in old age. But as gradually becomes clear, this might have less to do with Ilse’s own caring character than with society’s mores and expectations. “I never met the right one,” she says rather matter-of-factly when one of her siblings’ grandkids inquires why she never got married. But a visit from a woman who was bitten by her dog hints at the fact Ilse might actually be a closeted lesbian. This would explain why the kind old lady, who was born at the turn of the century and thus survived two world wars, would have preferred to stay unmarried. Her being a spinster, in turn, might have led to her family’s expectation that she would look after their mother, simply because she was the only one without kids and thus must have had time on her hands.
The entire film is filled with half-spoken truths and observations such as these that point to worlds of hurt and decisions and expectations in the past that have led the large clan to where they are today. This is how Kroener, who also wrote the screenplay, manages to suggest a lot of very dense backstory and yet keep the main narrative, which always unfurls in the present and without any flashbacks, very lean and clutter-free.
Gitti (Mavie Hoerbiger) and Bernd (Thomas Loibl) are adult siblings, with Gitti a single mom with one daughter while Bernd has a boy and a girl with his wife, Eva (Laura Tonke). As preteen children are wont to do, the cousins get along fine one moment and are almost mortal enemies the next. They can also be counted on to divulge the very information their parents told them never to repeat to anyone; this is especially hurtful in an instance in which Gitti’s daughter gets to hear from one of her peers that her absent father didn’t really want to have her.
The difficulties and the sense of shame surrounding single parenthood — still quite unusual in 1976 — come through loud and clear as Kroener follows Gitti after she’s promised her daughter she’ll try and call her dad to see if he can make it to her birthday party. She isolates herself from the others but, significantly, never calls anyone and might not even have his number. Kroener uses such moments of isolation to highlight the individual tragedies of the characters, which are obvious and affecting even though often they rely on unspoken feelings and glances.
Though men are present, this is very much a film about how women try to hold families together, even if they, too, tend to fight and bicker amongst themselves. “It’s a stupid job and stupid jobs are for men,” Eva explains when her daughter complains that her older brother gets to help grandpa with taking down a wasp nest. It’s one of these seemingly throwaway lines that suggests something about changing gender dynamics in the 1970s. Whereas Ilse’s possible sexual proclivities and the tendency of her middle-aged sister, Frieda (Christine Schorn), to sunbathe fully naked — even the dentures come out in one of the film’s many small humorous touches — are frowned upon and hardly accepted by their peers, the younger Eva and Gitti are more modern women, even if they struggle with some of the changes ahead.
One of the male characters even suggests it might be time to reunite the two Germanys because East Germany is winning way too many medals during the ongoing Summer Olympics in Montreal. Again, it’s a remark that is the kind of off-the-cuff thing a West German man might say while on vacation in 1976 but that also suggests something about where the country will, finally, be headed when the children depicted here will be grownups a dozen or so years later.
Summer vacations tend to be lazy ones, especially when it is hot. This is certainly the case for the summer portrayed here. Between its freak lightning accident in the opening and the sweltering downpour that closes the film, the sun is out almost constantly (how they managed to placate the weather gods during the shoot is a mystery). This allows the preteen kids to roam the grounds and run amok, building tree houses and killing wasps. Despite staying in one location, the pic never feels claustrophobic or stagey. Quite the contrary, as the constant movement of the kids gives The Garden a lot of vitality and bounce. Cinematographer Julia Daschner (Lose Your Head) follows them as they secretly picnic under the adults’ table, move around on their Hoppity Hops and venture even beyond the estate to a creepy little patch where a mysterious neighbor, who’s collecting newspaper articles about the recent kidnapping of a child, lives.
There’s a certain stylization in how Kroener approaches these darker elements and, to an extent, they feel and look like they belong in a grim children’s fairytale. However, Daschner and production designer Conrad Reinhardt ensure they don’t go overboard either here or in the nostalgia-for-the-1970s department, ensuring a kind of semi-realistic continuity between the different spaces as experienced by the different members of this sprawling and beguiling German family.
Production companies: Walker Worm Film, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Bayerischer Rundfunk
Cast: Thomas Loibl, Laura Tonke, Ursula Werner, Guenther Maria Halmer, Christine Schorn, Mavie Hoerbiger
Writer-director: Sonja Maria Kroener
Producers: Philipp Worm, Tobias Walker
Director of photography: Julia Daschner
Production designer: Conrad Reinhardt
Costume designer: Andy Besuch
Editor: Ulrike Tortora
Casting: Ulrike Mueller