'The Garden (Summerhauser)': Munich Review
Munich winner is a finely-crafted success for director Sonja Maria Kröner
Dir/scr. Sonja Maria Kröner. Germany. 2017. 97 mins.
Three generations of siblings bicker, a storm follows some sweltering weather, and the past echoes through long-held grudges and childhood adventures: The Garden may not be a documentary, but first-time writer/director Sonja Maria Kröner brings the recognisable hallmarks of many a summer vacation to her wry, 1976-set family portrait. Winning best director and producer at Munich Film Festival’s German Cinema New Talent Awards, this leisurely feature unfolds like a warm day but bites like a sudden burst of sunlight.
Kröner wrangles unaffected performances out of her ensemble cast
Like many a movie centred around blood bonds, familiarity can feel inescapable; however The Garden (titled Sommerhäuser — aka Summer Houses — in German), doesn’t forget to bring some intrigue into its relatable scenario and imagery. That combination should help this feature win further attention for director Sonja Maria Kroner, including broader festival play. Family antics and secrets remain universal, and so is this film’s finely crafted appeal.
For much of The Garden, Kröner’s approach is exemplified by the game its children play. As the adults tend to more serious matters in this shared family compound, the youngsters compete to see who can capture the most wasps, often trapping them and making them squirm. Or, perhaps it’s two youngsters picnicking under a table that provide a more apt description. Taking to the ground to pretend they’re dogs while their elders talk above, the girls get a unique, secret view of the seemingly ordinary goings-on around them — a perspective that cinematographer Julia Daschner, who shoots with crisp attention to both colour and detail, uses to the film’s advantage.
When a death brings the sprawling family together at their matriarch’s rambling country property, a felled tree immediately conjures an ominous air — one that never overwhelms but never dissipates either. “Perhaps it was fate that lightning struck now, for mother’s funeral,” septuagenarians Ilse (Ursula Werner), Frieda (Christine Schorn) and Erich (Günther Maria Halmer) pointedly mutter.
Apart from radio news reports of a missing girl, nothing that follows proves particularly unusual — clearing and packing, playing and planning, reminiscing and arguing, for example — but a relaxed gathering this isn’t. The middle generation of siblings Gitti (Mavie Hörbiger) and Bernd (Thomas Loibl), and his wife Eva (Laura Tonke), frequently and loudly squabble, not only over their potential inheritance but with long-held resentments bubbling to the surface. Their respective kids frolic, fight, climb up to a towering treehouse and poke around a neighbour’s junk-filled yard, sometimes while acting out their parents’ animosity
The feature’s synergy of story, theme and aesthetics employs a spate of different ways to demonstrate the fractures within the group. Sourcing ideal locations does some of the film’s work for it, thanks to sprawling grounds as messy and rambling as those flitting through them. Layering the soundtrack not with music, which is noticeably absent, but with a symphonic chorus of nature and chatter also assists. Markedly and blatantly, nothing is neat or quiet here.
Kröner wrangles unaffected performances out of her ensemble cast, assisting The Garden’s ambling atmosphere, as well as heightening the sense of authenticity. Accordingly and by design, watching her performers interact firmly conjures the feeling of peering into someone else’s family photos, assured in the knowledge that you’ve had the same experiences. Hörbiger and Tonke stand out, with their feud given ample screen time, while Werner conveys Ilse’s quiet yearning with nuance.
Production companies: Walker + Worm Film GmbH, Bayerischer Rundfunk and Westdeutscher Rundfunk
German distributor: Prokino Filmverleih GmbH
Producers: Philipp Worm, Tobias Walker
Cinematographer: Julia Daschner
Editor: Ulrike Tortora
Production design: Conrad Reinhardt
Costume design: Andy Besuch
Main cast: Thomas Loibl, Laura Tonke, Ursula Werner, Günther Maria Halmer, Christine Schorn