“It is not necessary to understand everything,” says a character in German drama “Totem,” which is clearly the author’s message in this dreary, willfully obscure arthouse effort. Helmer Jessica Krummacher should perhaps be cut a little slack given this is her film-school graduation project, and the pic’s flaws are those of youth: pretention, lack of tech polish and the inability to know the difference between paying homage to — and aping the style of — one’s idols (in Krummacher’s case, clearly Austrian helmers like Michael Haneke, Jessica Hausner, and Ulrich Seidl). “Totem” is unlikely to be worshiped beyond the fest circuit.
On the outskirts of Ruhr, housemaid Fiona (Marina Frenk) cleans up for the Bauer family, an oddball bunch comprised of dad Wolfgang (Benno Ifland), mom Claudia (Natja Brunckhorst), teen daughter Nicole (Alissa Wilms) and young son Juergen (Cedric Koch). There’s also a “baby,” actually a plastic doll, which Claudia for unknown reasons insists on pretending is real. No one is honest with each other or themselves, but there’s little drama in their psychodynamics. It doesn’t help that the pic is poorly lensed on HD, turning night scenes into gray murk.