'Summers Downstairs' ('Im Sommer Wohnt Er Unten'): Berlin Review
Rookie director Tom Sommerlatte directs a small but impressive cast that includes Sebastian Fraesdorf, Alice Pehlivanyan and Godehard Giese
Two German brothers butt heads at their family’s vacation home in France in Summers Downstairs (Im Sommer Wohnt Er Unten), a pungent, often uncomfortably funny dramedy from actor-turned-director Tom Sommerlatte. This year’s opener of the Berlinale’s section dedicated to local films, Perspektive Deutsches Kino, was produced by the director’s sister, Iris Sommerlatte, and is extremely festival friendly, though the lack of a name cast will make this a tougher proposition when Kinostar will release this at home theatrically.
Easy-going, pot-smoking Matthias Landberg (Sebastian Fraesdorf) moved into his rich family’s summer house on the French Atlantic coast some time ago so he could be together with his French girlfriend, Camille (Alice Pehlivanyan), who has pretty much moved in with her six-year-old son, Etienne (William Peiro). Their rather tranquil summer around the pool is rudely disturbed when Matthi’s older brother, David (Godehard Giese) and his wife, Lena (Karin Hanczewski), show up a week early for their planned holidays.
Immediately, the imperious David, who works in high finance like Landberg père, has the good-for-nothing Matthias and Camille move out of the main bedroom to a smaller room downstairs and scolds his brother for not having mowed the lawn recently, even though the couple weren’t expecting visitors for another week. What’s worse, he asks Matthi (in German) to ask his girlfriend (who speaks French and some English but no German) to send her noisy little brat to stay with his father so he and his wife can relax during their anticipated holidays.
Sommerlatte, who also wrote the screenplay, initially sets up the sibling rivalry as something pretty standard. It’s Camille who’s the most observant here, when she accuses her lover of not having the balls to simply stand up to his older brother. But the siblings’ bully-wimp dynamic is slowly twisted into something more complex and satisfying (as well as often painfully funny), starting with the revelation that Matthi, and not his alpha-male brother, is the sex god of the family, while the mousy, can’t-get-we-all-get-along Lena is desperate for a baby that the borderline frigid David has neither the capacity nor, it seems, the interest to produce.
Things take another turn for the worse when the extremely straightforward Camille decides that David, who also always seems to just say what he thinks, is an okay guy despite having sent her son away. They subsequently go out sailing together and then on a cycling trip to a local winery. The film, however, stays in and around the Landberg holiday home, a choice that might have had something to do with budget concerns but that works extremely well, since the viewers will start wondering what’s happening offscreen between sudden best buddies Camille and David just as much as their partners who have stayed behind.
Though working with relatively unknown actors, Sommerlatte, who’s dabbled in acting himself as well -- his resume consisting of an impressive list of mostly military types -- coaxes terrific performances out of the actors, who all go fluidly back and forth not only between more straightforward drama and painfully honest comedy but also between German and French -- with occasionally an English sentence thrown in when the German characters can’t quite express exactly what they want. With the clear exception of Camille, who plays the observant outsider (though she’s the only one actually in her own country), none of the characters seem particularly happy in their own skin, with Sommerlatte, who has 10 more siblings besides his producer sister, demonstrating a deft understanding of the complexity of fraternal bonds.
Since the film was entirely shot on one location, it is reasonable to assume it was shot mostly in sequence, an idea that seems to be supported by the fact that the film’s visuals become more assured as the story develops, with the use of closeups in the last reel especially impressive. Editor Anna Kappelmann carefully balances the often uncomfortable laughs with the film’s more dramatic undertow while Babett Klimmeck’s production design, dominated by baby blues and countless flower motifs, delivers a delicious counterpoint to the macho posturing and ego clashes that occur in and around the house.
Production companies: Osiris Media, Osiris Media France
Cast: Sebastian Fraesdorf, Alice Pehlivanyan, Godehard Giese, Karin Hanczewski, William Peiro
Writer-Director: Tom Sommerlatte
Producer: Iris Sommerlatte
Director of photography: Willi Boehm
Production designer: Babett Klimmeck
Costume designer: Rene Venghaus
Editor: Anna Kappelmann
Casting: Uwe Buenker, Nathalie Cheron
Sales: ARRI Worldsales
No rating, 100 minutes