By Elias Savada.
Russian-born and German-trained Alisa Berger shows off her experimental and artistic tendencies in The Astronaut’s Bodies, a graduation project for the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. Her first feature is a meditative family drama that extends its light story line (also by Berger) into juxtaposed threads surrounding a single parent and the children who suffer through his alcoholic abuse.
Michael (Lars Rudolph – a German actor who resembles a gaunt, older Steve Zahn) is the disheveled patriarch, finding any excuse to berate his children. He’s a unbathed slob, with hair as unruly as his bipolar manner. One of the few reminders of his unnamed spouse – whose absence probably led to his current depression – is a photo of her gazing out at the family from the middle of their small dining table. Teenagers Anton (Béla Gabor Lenz – who American audiences might recognize for a small role in the German-language Netflix series Dark) and his twin sister Linda (Zita Aretz) have just graduated from high school, with the boy having decided on a career as an astronaut. She’s unsure about her future, other than that she prefers to spend it away from a caustic home environment. Their 8-year-old sibling, Irene (Luzio Nadjafi) bears the brunt of the father’s belligerent, manipulative shenanigans.
Anton’s tale, speckled with oddball NASA footage, revolves about a medical study he has joined to examine the effects of one aspect of space travel. Scientists will be examining the atrophy of his legs while he remains in a horizontally position for 60 days. The physical stress alone puts all the subjects in the experiment to task, but there’s also the mental and emotional challenge. Anton only realizes he’s being observed after the pale, albino-ish assistant (Britta Thie) enters his room and replaces a piece of food he dropped on the floor. Wouldn’t such surveillance been in the agreement he would have signed before becoming a guinea pig? The camera is also very obvious in its bubble cover in the ceiling above his bed. So, maybe he’s not the smartest cookie in building, but he certainly has a passion for space.
Although it’s a group experiment, he’s alone in his bed except for a plush monkey dressed in space suit. As there’s little activity for him to embrace, the fascinating space travel stories his sisters provide him as audio files (they definitely share his enthusiasm) send his mind drifting in inner and outer space, as a sole astronaut heading for Earth, in just the kind of space suit his toy primate wears.
Meanwhile, Linda finds herself attracted to an older boy Patrick (Daniel Michel), while Irene remains at home with her manipulative, death-wish of a drunken dad. The film’s story arc follows each particular family member as they try to sort out where they are heading, with some interesting hooks, and some occasionally jarring edits, connecting one strand to the other, hoping to find some kind of inner peace in their intimate yet expansive family galaxy.
Early on, the discomforting hand-held camera of Bine Jankowski surrounds each cast member with immersive close-ups (wide shots appear to be limited to Anton’s space journeys, offering the usual planetary views). For Linda, you’ll get head shots as she applies her makeup and heads out looking for a connection left by her brother’s absence. Director Berger also likes to play with outlandish imagery – tossing unearthly lights on children playing as if in outer space, throwing kaleidoscopic views in one scene, swirling blood around in orgasmic confusion in another. Even a group of children pounding on a green port-a-potty pushes the viewer into her uneasy world.
It’s an intimate portrayal of a family at issue with itself. How do you deal with a father who is an easy-going, playful guy one moment, but then a vodka-laced beast the next? The film balances his journey into escapist drinking with that of his son, Anton, as he partakes in a strange, imagined journey in outer space.
The film’s fantasy elements definitely surround Anton and his space journey. As he communicates with his siblings, the video image gains digital signal degradation as he drifts about in response to the whimsical Saturn-bound space opera his sisters prepared for him.
Loosely translating the filmmaker’s treatise on her film, there is a great deal of existential theory to absorb: Progression of the thought, regression of the soul, and the beauty of the organic, of the body, of matter, and of the inner yearning, wanting, yearning life within matter.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).