I don’t think the word bleak covers the amount of quiet anguish in Sabrina Mertens’ riveting debut film Fellwechselzeit (Time of Moulting).
Stephanie (Zelda Espenschied and Miriam Schiweck as the teenage Stephanie) lives with her parents in 1970s Germany. As a girl, she is close to her mother (Freya Kreutzkam), who is depressed and cares for her dolls and finds her father (Bernd Wolf) abrasive and aloof. As she ages, a growing fascination with her grandfather’s butcher gear awakens something dark within, and her parents are less and less necessary to her as she explores her true desires.
Fellwechselzeit is a quietly terrifying film. It is nihilistic, and the lack of human emotion as these three people live trapped with each other creates an invisible void, making them repellant to others outside the home. If you look at Germany’s history, there is a parallel to the old and new world, a life behind an impenetrable wall, and once that wall is down, escape is an inevitable route.
This family lives with the debris of the past. Stephanie’s mother is backed into a corner surrounded by her memories, dolls, albums, and cold husband. Stephanie grew up seeing a loveless marriage, so of course, she doesn’t trust it. Even the cat wants to get away from these people, often sitting by a window and dreaming of escape. All this time in a home that grows more and more cluttered with things and not love gives Stephanie ample time to explore her dark desires and fantasies. It’s an origin story with a static start, an unknown future as Stephanie grows into a woman amongst the growing hoard of random household items. This type of narrative is usually applied to men and boys. We are always interested in the darkness of the male mind, but here, Mertens explores a girl’s dark genesis into adulthood.
Fellwechselzeit is Mertens’ third-year student film studying how isolation and neglect can create psychological horror. She also references Germany in the 70s and the trauma carried over from the Second World War. One can see parallels to the shame of World War II that still hangs over German identity, evident with the sequestered life this family lives. Stephanie’s parents suppress so much that it’s only natural for her to express herself in ways that aren’t normalized. It’s a mirror of how the world shunned Germany after the atrocities of war. Shame, denial and sadness transfer from her parents to her in strange ways and the lack of healing creates a wound in Stephanie that she is eager to explore.
With a small budget, Mertens accomplishes an unsettling film with dismal interiors and the helpless observation of a family crumbling into ruin.
See Fellwechselzeit in Germany only, February 4.
(I’m delighted to be able to cover a few films for the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival this year, made accessible online due to the pandemic. Check out the full program here for free events and tickets to shorts programs. Please note the availability of viewings: “INTERNATIONAL audiences can purchase tickets for the ISOLATION HORROR, CYBER HORROR, YOUNG BLOOD, COMEDY HORROR short blocks. CANADIAN audiences can purchase tickets for ISOLATION HORROR, CYBER HORROR, YOUNG BLOOD short blocks. All features are geo-locked to Germany, and all short blocks are viewable as well to German audiences.”).