A bitter family portrait
by Fabien Lemercier
- Subtle and cruel variations beneath a polished veneer of social appearances mark the promising beginnings of a young German director
A film with an insidiously corrosive atmosphere under a summer sun was the highlight of this year’s Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival, with the screening of Pingpong [+see also:
interview: Matthias Luthardt
interview: Sebastian Urzendowsky
film profile], a promising debut feature by German director Matthias Luthardt.
Set in an isolated villa in the middle of a forest, the film brings together five characters during a seemingly mundane week: a father, a spineless executive; an authoritarian housewife in her bourgeois splendour; their teenage son, who is preparing a piano audition; their nephew, who turns up unexpectedly for some holidays; and Schumann the dog in a role of his own.
In the garden, a ping-pong table and a swimming pool that the nephew is renovating provide the set, which the director skilfully uses to inject little variations in the story of a family poisoned behind the mask it presents to society.
The character that provokes and triggers change is the nephew Paul (Sebastian Urzendowky) who, weighed down with the burden of his father’s recent suicide, escapes to his video console and instinctive behaviour. After his uncle leaves on a business trip, Paul seduces his aunt (Marion Mitterhammer) and plays a part in the explosive frustrations of his cousin (Clemens Berg), who is slipping towards alcoholism in order to cope with the pressures of his piano studies with his omnipresent tutor, his mother.
Once the swimming pool is finished, the father (Falk Rockstroh) is back from his business trip and the piano is out of the scene, the young man will get revenge on his lover, whom he ignores by sacrificing his favourite character in the house, Schumann.
The story – co-written by the director and Meike Hauck – is based on simple narrative lines that Luthardt unwinds subtly, to gradually create a latent atmosphere of aggression where each character’s wounds emerge one after another, revealed through sober camerawork that follows the actors tightly. The final result is a film by a director who knows how to make intelligent use of simple elements and rarefied events.
A science of distanced observation and minimalism have prompted certain experts to link the 34 year-old director with the Berlin School (Christian Petzoldt, Angela Schanelec, Valeska Grisebach, among others), an association that Luthardt half agrees with (see interview).
Produced by Berlin-based outfit Junifilm with co-production funding from the Konrad Wolf Film & Television Academy (HFF) Hochschule für Film & Fernsehen "Konrad Wolf" in Potsdam-Babelsberg, MDR (Mitteldeutscher RundFunk) and Koppmedia, Pingpong, which is being sold internationally by Media Luna Entertainment, has already attracted strong interest from festival selection panels.
Winner of the SACD Prize and the Young Critics’ Award at Cannes and nominated in the Discovery category at the 2006 European Film Awards, the film was also presented at Montreal, Copenhagen, Warsaw, Kiev, Pusan and Tallinn, while Luthardt was one of twelve European directors chosen for the “New Cinema Network”, organised by the RomeFilmFest. Such acclaim marks yet another stepping stone in the uncontested renaissance of quality young German cinema, as well as a fine start to the career of a director to be followed very closely.
(Translated from French)