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The mind-numbing yet comforting routine of a mousy hotel cleaner is upset when she finds herself hiding underneath the bed of a guest during a session of light BDSM in The Chambermaid (Das Zimmermaedchen Lynn), German director Ingo Haeb’s adaptation of the novel by Markus Orths. A modern Kammerspielfilm, in which the finely etched psychology of the protagonist contrasts with the extraordinarily blah wallpaper of the rooms in which she spends her days and nights, this small-scale and intimate film about a young woman’s awakening could be marketed as Germany’s answer to Fifty Shades of Grey — even if the film itself is something quite different.
To be able to return to the hotel where the nondescript Lynn (Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, who recently wowed German audiences in a biopic about German pilot Elly Beinhorn) used to work as a chambermaid, she fools around with former manager (Steffen Muenster), with whom, it is implied, she has had sexual relations before. But as staged by Haeb with great use of off-screen space, it’s clear that for Lynn this is simply a business transaction entirely devoid of feelings, positive or negative.
Unlike in the novel, the reason Lynn initially left or lost her relatively insignificant job are not spelled out, though audiences see her talking to an off-screen therapist about her progress every week, and she explains to one of her colleagues that she voluntarily checked into a facility for therapy but that now she’s better. “The beauty of cleaning is that everything gets dirty again,” is a line that reveals the timid girl’s philosophy in a nutshell; as long as she can keep busy, she feels useful and has a sense of self-worth.
What emerges almost wordlessly from Krieps’s impressively fastidious performance is that Lynn is someone who needs to cling to what she knows in order to at least feel safe, though routines, places and objects initially seem preferable to people. However, as the film progresses and Lynn is seen handling guests’ objects and then secretly begins to spy on them in their rooms, it slowly becomes clear that she’s starting to find other people fascinating, if perhaps a little scary.
Roughly the first half of the film feels remarkably similar to French director Pascale Ferran’s recent Cannes Un Certain Regard entry Bird People, which also looked at the solitary and repetitive job of a hotel chambermaid. In both films, their monotonous if safe routines are upset by something unexpected. In The Chambermaid, it’s an encounter of a guest (Christian Aumer) with a bottle-blond dominatrix, Chiara (Lena Lauzemis), experienced by the viewer almost entirely through the use of sound and the brilliant face of Krieps, who’s hiding under the bed and can only image what must be going on.
Through Chiara, it dawns on Lynn that pain doesn’t necessarily need to be negative and that intimacy can happen in a context that’s a lot more controlled than in real life (read: paid for). This sets into motion the film’s last act, which may be predictable emotionally, but contains some unexpected visual touches and, in the hands of Haeb, Krieps and Lauzemis, ultimately registers as rather moving.
One of the highly private Lynn’s few pleasures is watching old French movies on her laptop, so it seems perhaps appropriate that The Chambermaid was shot by French DP Sophie Maintigneux, who debuted as a cinematographer on Eric Rohmer’s classic Le Rayon Vert. Effortlessly framed and aided by Haeb’s equally impeccable mise-en-scene, Maintigneux’s sober but very precise work, shot on the Canon C500, allows the solitary figure at the center of the film to evolve in the soulless rooms of the hotel and her own apartment, all conjured up by terrific production designer Petra Klimek. Another standout contribution comes from Jakob Ilja, whose score seems to be constantly taking the emotional temperature of the story.
Production companies: Sutor Kolonko, 58Filme, Imok, WDR, Pandora Film, Torus
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Lena Lauzemis, Steffen Muenster, Christian Aumer, Christine Schorn, Sonja Baum, Alexander Swoboda
Writer-Director: Ingo Haeb, screenplay based on the novel by Markus Orths
Producers: Ingmar Trost, Olaf Hirschberg, Tom Schreiber
Executive producer: Bob Krieps, Vicky Krieps
Director of photography: Sophie Maintigneux
Production designer: Petra Klimek
Costume designer: Ulrike Scharfswerdt
Editor: Nicole Kortlueke
Composer: Jakob Ilja
No rating, 98 minutes
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