The past is indeed a foreign country, which means it’s often filmed as such, with an eye for the exotic otherness that makes it an alien realm. But Sonja Kröner’s quietly assured, gently tragedy-tinged debut stands apart by rejecting that anachronistic approach and instead delivering a portrait of a bourgeois German family’s 1970s summer that feels deliciously and authentically present-tense.
Images so piercingly accurate they feel like slivers of real memories — a foot stepping out of the loop of a garden hose; a rim of grime under a fingernail; the whirr of a manual rotary lawnmower — are somehow delivered without fetishization or nostalgia. The cumulative effect is to make “The Garden” (much less generically titled “Summer Houses” in German) feel like an auspiciously evocative debut, even if it delivers more on atmosphere than on fully nourished story.
As it starts, the grandparent generation is mourning the recent passing of their own mother, whom sprightly septuagenarian Ilse (Ursula Werner) had looked after until her death and whose sprawling countryside property with its various small houses has always provided the summer vacation spot for the extended family. Their adult offspring Bernd (Thomas Loibl, familiar as the hapless boss in Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann”) and Gitti (Mavie Hörbiger) are, separately, on their way to “the garden” with their own families in tow.
Bernd’s wife Eva (an excellent Laura Tonke) is gently resentful of the attractive Gitti, convinced the flighty single mother is the preferred child, and if, as is overheard in murmured conversations suddenly curtailed, the garden is to be sold by Ilse, Eva is certain the lion’s share of the inheritance will go to Gitti, not Bernd. Her outsidery sullenness is marked further by her under-her-breath comments on his sister’s dolled-up appearance and, less forgivably, her unkind explanation to her own daughter Jana that Inge, Gitti’s daughter, had a father who “just didn’t want her very much.” Inevitably, given the casual cruelty of children fighting over ownership of various toys, an elaborate treehouse and a Slip’N Slide, that acid barb is repeated to little Inge herself.
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In the background, there’s a buzz of portentous unease. The radio burbles the story of a missing child; the newspapers print salacious details of the crime for the old ladies to tut about over tea; wasps start to multiply; and, like all good childhood vacation spots, there’s even a fantasy ghoul: the mysterious “artist” who lives just over the boundary fence, whose art betrays a worrisome interest in doll mutilation.
The family relationships, especially among the older cast members, are not drawn especially clearly, but that adds to “The Garden’s” choral, lazy-days feel. This is family in the most recognizable and honest sense: people who utterly take each other for granted and nurse favoritism and grudges so long-standing that even they may have forgotten where they originate. And it’s an understanding of those lines of loyalty and suspicion that is much more important than the exact family tree.
It’s an indolent, hot summer; nothing and everything happens. A tree falls; plants get watered; a birthday is celebrated; kids are lost, found and futilely grounded; one of the older generation is politely asked to stop sunbathing nude. Ilse seems on the verge of a tentative, late-life, same-sex romance, but is made to feel ridiculous for wearing lipstick to lunch. The children bounce around on Hoppity Hops, venture into the forbidden territory beyond the fence and sing a childishly racist song that refers, in cheery nursery rhyme terms, to child murder and cannibalism.
The images are in a rich, precisely calibrated palette, and though the framing from DP Julia Daschner sometimes sacrifices discipline for immediacy, more often it picks out nicely observed moments of all-but-disappeared humdrum activity, like making a bed with blankets rather than a duvet, or briskly cleaning one’s nails with a nail brush. The locations, interiors and costuming are terrific (kudos to production designer Conrad Reinhardt and costume designer Andy Besuch), with every corner of this contained, microcosmic world feeling authentic to its 1970s German setting.
And Chris Rebay and Heiko Müller’s sound design deserves special mention: The scoreless film derives an enormous amount of its evocative power from the cleverly layered soundtracking of birdsong and wasp-drone under rustling leaves, creaking wood, far-off airplanes and the white noise of wind and sprinklers. And, perhaps most impressive of all for a neophyte director, Kröner gets unimpeachably natural, unselfconscious performances from every member of her big, generations-spanning ensemble, playing a family who may be nothing like your own, but who will remind you of them anyway.