'HomeSick': London Review

Courtesy of Mojo Pictures
A classy home-alone psycho-thriller.

There are knowing nods to Polanski and Haneke in Jakob Erwa’s chilly urban Eurothriller about a neighborly feud that spirals into nightmarish paranoia.

A low-budget masterclass in nerve-jangling suspense from the young Austrian writer-director Jakob M. Erwa, HomeSick is a classy psycho-thriller which makes effective use of its claustrophobic location and its modest financial resources. Mostly taking place inside a single Berlin apartment, the plot has clear echoes of Michael Haneke and vintage Roman Polanski, notably the latter’s nightmarish home-alone trio Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. Erwa’s film lacks the power and originality of these cult classics, inevitably, but he still puts a fresh and spooky spin on well-worn thriller tropes.

Not to be confused with the Norwegian incest drama of the same title which premiered at Sundance back in January, HomeSick screened at London Film Festival earlier this month, shortly before it opened in German theaters. Genre-friendly and polished in execution, this partially crowd-funded chamber piece has potential both for further festival recitals and a modest commercial encore.

In her first lead performance, Esther Maria Pietsch gives a solid star turn as Jessica, a highly strung young cellist newly settled in a shabby-chic Berlin apartment with her boyfriend Lorenz (Matthias Lier). Arty bohemians with noisy stoner friends, the new arrivals soon attract the disapproval of the stern upstairs neighbor who acts as self-appointed guardian of the whole block, Frau Domweber (a terrific, teasingly poker-faced Tatja Seibt). A frosty truce is established, but tensions still linger. In keeping with Berlin tradition, the apartment has no curtains, and Jessica soon finds herself spooked by Frau Domweber’s constant surveillance from the window directly overlooking hers.

Selected for a prestigious music event in Moscow, Jessica is under enormous pressure to perform. She begins practicing her cello at home, only to be interrupted by a string of unnerving events. Animal feces mysteriously appear on the couple’s doormat, their pet cat disappears without explanation, and an undertaker makes an ominous call to the apartment. Since these creepy occurrences only happen when Jessica is at home alone, Lorenz can write them off as the by-product of her stressed, overheated brain. But Jessica’s paranoid suspicions finally reach snapping point, and she confronts Frau Domweber in an angry showdown that escalates into violence.

HomeSick is built on familiar plot ingredients, but Erwa is clearly self-aware enough to keep audiences guessing, smartly wrong-footing expectations with a couple of final twists that call the whole narrative into question. He and cinematographer Christian Trieloff shoot with elegant economy, using a muted color palette and lots of artfully spare, classically composed shots. The back of Jessica’s head becomes a recurring motif, as do steam-belching humidifiers and kettles, their presence increasingly symbolic as the tension hits boiling point. Christofer Frank’s crisp, mostly upbeat cello score is a pleasingly ironic touch in a superior low-budget psycho-thriller which never quite transcends genre rules, but still gives them a healthy shake.

Production company: Mojo Pictures

Cast: Esther Maria Pietsch, Tatja Seibt, Matthias Lier, Hermann Beyer

Director, screenwriter, producer: Jakob M. Erwa

Cinematographer: Christian Trieloff

Editor: Wiebke Henrich

Music: Christofer Frank

Sales company: Wide Management, Paris

No rating, 98 minutes