The coming-of-age genre is rich with equal potential for catharsis or terror...
...Films like The Craft and Raw have brilliantly depicted the uncomfortable feeling of growth and development as frightening horror stories. Coming of age stories are perfect for high concept films largely because it is easy to relate to characters in these situations; most people have, at some point, been through a transitional period in their lives. Writer/director Sabrina Mertens’ German offering to the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, Fellwechselzeit (or Time of Moulting in English) captures the unnerving feeling of growing up but does not offer much in the way of scares. Scaring does not seem to have been the film’s primary intention, however. Rather, Mertens appears to have preferred offering a unique take on a familiar profile, and goddamn does she succeed.
In Time of Moulting, Mertens painstakingly recreates a small corner of 1970s Germany and populates it with a three-person family: Mother (Freya Kreutzkam), Father Reinheart (Bernd Wolf), and daughter Stephanie (played in younger years by Zelda Espenschied and in later years Miriam Schiweck). Through minimal conversation and brief interactions, we clearly understand the strained and painful relations among the family. Reinheart is entirely uninterested in helping his daughter with her schooling or maintaining any type of connection to his wife, preferring to watch endless hours of television and sleep on the couch. Mother seems to be mentally unwell and lives in a perpetual state of childhood, acting more like her daughter’s friend than a parent. All this leaves Stephanie—our child protagonist—on her own to develop emotionally and mentally. As the film lurches forward in time, we see that Stephanie probably would have been better off with a little more help from her parents.
Early in the film, Stephanie looks through the pages of an old photo album. While we do not see any of the photos, Stephanie’s mother does describe bits of them. Stephanie’s father with other somber men who are now long dead. Large, fat pigs. Seeing a picture of a pig being expertly butchered by her grandfather, Stephanie shouts (perhaps with too much excitement), “That pig is open!” Examining the pictures, Stephanie remarks that she loves photographs because of their ability to show us a small window into the past. With this comment, Stephanie is telling the audience the film’s aesthetic. Each scene plays out in a single, locked shot. Characters move throughout the frame while still giving the impression that we are looking at a series of photographs depicting moments in a life. Imagine Barry Lyndon without the zoom lenses.
In Time of Moulting the role of photographs extends beyond visual style, becoming integral to the storytelling itself. Scenes exist without beginning, middle, or end, leaving the viewer with the knowledge that we are looking at only a fraction of a moment in a lifetime of moments. Watching this film, I was reminded of going through boxes of my grandfather’s personal photographs. I would look at these images and wonder, “Why did you take a picture of this? Why capture this instant as opposed to any other? What was happening that felt important enough to snap the shutter?” For those who did not live in those moments, the mystery may never be solved. But we still know that there was something happening at that moment. All of this makes Time of Moulting a film that is uninviting but mentally arresting. If viewers can accept that they are not meant to understand everything and that transitions will not be provided, they may be intellectually rewarded by the effort to connect the dots themselves.
The title of the film clearly references the process of casting off old skin (in the case of snakes), feathers (if a bird), and/or exoskeletons (as an arthropod). This is as unique a turn of phrase as I’ve ever heard to describe growing up. The title carries many connotations, most of which apply to this film. The uncomfortable but oddly satisfying image of a snake squirming out of its old skin is applicable to the discomfort of watching Stephanie attempt to interact with peers. The seemingly misshapen and haphazard shape of the story brings to mind a mess of feathers at the bottom of a parakeet’s cage. And the image of a Praying Mantis standing tall and terrifying over its former form absolutely applies to certain thematic elements.
The second half of this movie is a treatise on nature vs. nurture. Having grown some ten years older, we see Stephanie’s new habits and the way she communicates (or doesn’t, as is often the case) with her parents. By seeing what initially appeared to be disparate and unconnected moments during a small child’s life, we have a fuller but still incomplete view of how Stephanie formed into the teen that she has become. After the film’s end, we are left to wonder if things could have been different for her. If, after discovering some strange family heirlooms, Stephanie’s mother had read a different bedtime story, would Stephanie have developed more innocuous interests later in life? Of course, we cannot answer this question any more easily for Stephanie than we could for ourselves. The film is more interested in the question than the answer.
Time of Moulting is a fascinating exploration of some of the formative moments in an individual’s life. By following Stephanie through the brief interactions and seemingly inconsequential discoveries of a child into their teen years, we are allowed to see the building of a personality. The only thing that would have made this film better than it is—and it is quite good—would be to see Stephanie as an adult. With a runtime just north of 80 minutes, there would have been time enough to see adult Stephanie having shed one more layer of skin. Instead, we’re left with an ambiguous finale that is just too much, and audiences will likely wish for that last bit of conclusion—I know I do.
By Mark Gonzales
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