Austria/Germany (2015) Dir. Jakob M. Erwa

Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours

So says the famous theme song for the perennial Aussie TV soap opera, but it makes no mention of bad neighbours or the creepy ones with pernicious agendas. Luckily, we have cinema to take up that particular challenge instead…

Jessica (Esther Maria Pietsch) is a promising young cellist chosen to represent Germany in a concert in Moscow, and has moved to a new flat in Berlin with her boyfriend Lorenz (Matthias Lier). Everything is fine initially but on the first night when celebrating with their friends, one of the residents Hilde Domweber (Tatja Seibt) complains about the loud music in the otherwise quiet apartment block.

The young couple make peace with Hilde and go about their business, Lorenz going to work and Jessica staying home and practicing her cello. But a number of annoying and gradually unpleasant distractions prevent Jessica from her practice, along with Hilde ominously watching from across the way. But the more this upsets Jessica, Lorenz thinks she is simply stressed.

In the second feature from Austrian writer-director-producer Jakob M. Erwa, atmospheric cues are taken from Michael Haneke’s Hidden, a masterclass in unnerving the audience through the simple device of silence as witnessed through a voyeuristic lens. Homesick is only really comparable to Hidden in that respect, and while some might dismiss this as a “lesser” work it has its own charms.

By that I mean there is no need to go looking for direct comparisons or overt influences to Haneke’s films or any other that have covered the same subject here; it‘s a fruitless exercise with the many familiar plot beats and conventions present and you’d forget to enjoy the film for what it is and judge it on its own merits.

With a gloomy, muted colour palette established in the first frame showing a clearly stressed Jessica walking in the streets in her nightgown, to the post titles framing of the empty apartment prior to the new tenants bursting in to breathe life into the soulless grey room, Erwa sets us up to expect a minimalist ride that adopts an intrusive mise en scene, but that is all.

Not wanting to get offside with the neighbours, Jessica and Lorenz visit Hilde with a peace offering and she reciprocates with a small red statue of an angel which Jessica thinks is creepy but accepts anyway. Everything should be copacetic hereafter but whenever Jessica puts on the headphones and settles down with her practice cello the doorbell rings and, you guessed it, there is no-one there.  

To keep Jessica company they buy a kitten named Pikachu and there are no surprises how that turns out, but before then the mysterious campaign to prevent Jessica from practicing her continues, incrementally upping the ante with dog poop on the doorstep and the rather poor taste arrival of an undertaker dragging Jessica out of the bath to pick up the deceased Jessica Klug!

Unable to sleep at night and incurring the disappointment of her music tutor, Jessica becomes a nervous wreck; by not being subject to or witness to any of the same strange occurrences, Lorenz can’t offer anything more than sympathetic support, viewing Jessica’s paranoia as stress resulting from the pressure of needing to perform at the high level expected of her for the upcoming concert.

It might not be apparent but this is the main theme Erwa is exploring here, how we perform according to society’s expectations. The concert is ostensibly a McGuffin in that it is the fulcrum of Jessica’s mental unravelling yet never happens. In some respects, Hilde is a McGuffin too but that is the twist Erwa is teasing us with.  

Any evidence indicting Hilde as Jessica’s tormentor is speculative and circumstantial at best but that is the point; Erwa works it deftly enough that we accept Jessica’s version of events without question. Again, this is nothing new for this kind of story but the difference here is in how Hilde is portrayed via the superbly disarming and imperceptibly unrevealing performance from Tatja Seibt.

Eschewing the deliberately creepy overtones and defensive attitude, in every encounter with Jessica, Hilde comes off as the victim but with enough of an edge to inject a sliver of doubt that she is the culprit. And the further into desperation and delusion Jessica gets, the lines of reality predictably blur, but not so this is obvious, at first at least.     

There is one visual slip up – or maybe it wasn’t a slip – towards the end as we shuffle uncomfortably towards the expected conclusion – but is it expected? That is where Erwa defies predictability by not letting on which scenario is supposed to be a confused reality or just him teasing us with the idea that it is or isn’t Jessica’s delusion.

Relying solely on diegetic music for the soundtrack the tense atmosphere is created exclusively through the largely static camera and the overwhelming foreboding silence. This pared down presentation – the film was partially crowdfunded thus is a truly independent feature – gives the cast an ostensive blank canvas upon which they make their characters physically and mentally adaptable to the confines of their surroundings in a believable manner.

Leading from the front is Esther Maria Pietsch in her first leading role and she goes all out to making every second count. Her natural, unassuming looks mean the gradual descent into meltdown is a credible and smooth transition than if she was unattainably  glamorous. Pietsch’s finest moment would arguably be the histrionic breakdown scene, a tragic explosion of raw emotional distress met with non-plussed helplessness.    

Admittedly some areas of the story aren’t so compelling, such as Jessica’s overbearing parents and the presence of the couple’s cadre of friends, and these contributions feel superfluous. Consequently it seems there was a bigger narrative Erwa was hoping to explore, otherwise he delivers a confident and sufficiently effective psychodrama with Homesick.