Totem: Venice Film Review

Film-school graduation project from a debuting writer-director is slight, subdued but cumulatively unsettling.

This German film is a film school project but it's good enough to premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Fest.

In Germany, it's not so unusual for film school graduation proejects to make it onto the international film festival circuit, which is the case of Totem, which premiered in Venice. Totem is a low-key, claustrophobically creepy vision of leafy suburbia as seen through the eyes of a dysfunctional family's quietly spoken live-in maid. A modestly promising debut from writer-director Jessica Krummacher, the film shows enough promise to warrant inclusion by more fests showcasing fresh European talent.

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Reportedly filmed over the course of one month on a budget of €30,000 ($40,000) it centers on Fiona (Marina Frenk), a 23-year-old working as an au pair and cleaner for the Bauer family — father Wolfgang (Benno Ifland), mother Claudia (Natja Brunckhorst), precocious youngster Jürgen (Cedric Koch) and his teenage sister Nicole (Alissa Wilms). The house isn't a large or luxurious one, and it seems Fiona has been hired via the Internet chiefly because of Claudia's unstable mental health.

Herr and Frau Bauer are a volatile, short-tempered couple. Meanwhile, Fiona turns out to be less than straightforward, having evidently escaped from an unsatisfactory family circumstance of her own. She tells her mother that she's enjoying a holiday whereas in fact she's being worked quite hard, and treated not particularly well, as a servant.
In films of this type the domestic help is invariably an immigrant, foreigner or outsider of some kind. But Fiona is German, and from a similar social background to her employers, adding an extra element of awkwardness to what is clearly a less than satisfactory arrangement.

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But if life with the Bauers is far from ideal, it seems to suit Fiona quite well. She finds herself drawn into petty squabbles and power games among family members, which can turn violent when the depressive Claudia is involved.

When off-duty, Fiona explores the immediate neighborhood of this particularly unremarkable corner of the Ruhr conurbation, leading to a droll encounter with some puzzled local cops.
But Totem works best as a minutely detailed evocation and exploration of an “ordinary' home,” taking us behind closed doors to observe the brittle dynamics that dictate behavior between friends, family and strangers. A life-size German shepherd sculpture is deployed to amusing effect on several occasions as Björn Siepmann's camerawork crafts compositions that constantly keep us slightly on edge, as if we are on the verge of witnessing some terrible act of cruelty or violence, as tends to be the case in the many Austrian variations on similar themes from the likes of Ulrich Seidl, Markus Schleinzer and Jessica Hausner.

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Krummacher's handling of her actors is perhaps her strongest suit with Frenk proving up to the task of holding the screen when performing the most mundane household tasks. The director elicits strong work from Koch, whose Jürgen is given to issuing cryptic statements such as the information that "scorpions kill themselves if they are surrounded by fire." Brunckhorst, meanwhile, is near-unrecognizable as the eponymous lead from Uli Edel's 1981 study of a drug-addicted Berlin teenager Christiane F, back in the days when shoestring-budgeted German productions could and did travel the world's art house screens.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (International Critics' Week)
Production companies: Klappboxfilme in association with the Munich Film and TV School
Cast: Marina Frenk. Natja Brunckhorst, Benno Ifland, Alissa Wilms, Cedric Koch, Fritz Fenne
Director/screenwriter: Jessica Krummacher
Producers: Martin Blankemeyer, Jessica Krummacher, Philipp Budweg, Timo Müller
Director of photography: Björn Siepmann
Costume designers: Anna Wübber, Sarah Bernardy
Music: Marina Frenk
Editors: Jessica Krummacher, Heike Parplies
Sales: Arepo Media, Cologne
No rating,  89 minutes

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