New German Cinema in Munich

in 40th FilmFest Munich

by Ela Bittencourt

The 2023 Munich Film Festival featured a sidebar presenting New German cinema, which was notable for its diversity of genres—from socially edged comedies to suspense and a quasi-biblical fairytale—in addition to documentaries, the latter more in line with traditional television reportage. Particularly compelling were the films that centered on generational conflicts, often against the background of economic tensions: From Henning Beckhoff’s Fossil (the Fipresci prize winner), which tells the story of a middle-aged oil rig worker and his estrangement from his daughter who’s an environmental activist, to Behrooz Karamizade’s Empty Nets, set in Germany and Iran, in which a young man tries desperately to make a living in order to marry his sweetheart, against her parents’ wishes to make a better match, to Anna Roller’s dreamy, horror-tinged Dead Girls Dancing, in which a group of young women find themselves in a deserted Italian town, as if in the midst of a mysterious plague, to then Christina Ebert’s terse, character-driven drama, Monster Inside, which portrays a young woman’s problematic pregnancy and her conflictual relationship with her mother as a devastating psychological pressure-cooker.   

Monster Inside particularly made an impression on me for its narratively compact yet observationally astute depiction of motherhood. Similarly to Fossil, which immediately grabs the audience with Beckhoff’s striking choice of having both a prickly protagonist and sticking to a stylistic choice of deadpan humor, modulating performances, Monster Inside also pulls the audience in by making a bold formal and tonal choice—this time, leaning on the crime genre, and staying closely to the main protagonist, Sandra, to the point of near claustrophobia. This decision is crucial because in order for the story to work, we must feel that Sandra is on an inevitable disaster course. Something is boiling inside her. She has a steady loving boyfriend, who fixes and races cars. She’s passionate about his work, more so than hers, since she works in an abattoir, a monotonous setting whose presence of blood and chops immediately adds a queasy, slightly horror edge to the social drama enfolding her. Ebert’s script, which apparently emerged after she spent some time getting to know young mothers giving birth in a prison, is tightly written, with just the right amount of dialogue to bring out the underlying nuances of characters. In a particularly eloquent scene, for example, in which Sandra, her boyfriend and her mother watch television, Sandra’s mere sideway glance at her mom captures the excruciating instability and tenseness of Sandra’s psyche. The action itself moves briskly, with the seesawing between presence and flashbacks, adding to the suspense. We know that Sandra is getting ready to give birth, while locked up, but not what crime brought her there, or why her mental state is so acute.

Ebert recruits the considerable talents of the Bavarian actress Franziska Hartmann to tell her story. Hartmann’s performance is strong and nervy. She captures Sandra as a woman who’s as fun-loving, as she is punk, but from the start there is an uncomfortable intensity to her behavioral patterns. Hartmann gets it in the character’s brisk walk, brusque manner, and especially the robotic motions with which Sandra tends to her mother, whose illness keeps her trapped inside an apartment, relying on Sandra to do her chores, such as shopping, laundry, even washing her. The question of space that constitutes the “inside” in the title lies at the center of the drama: There is the cramped interior of the mother’s apartment in what appears to be government housing, the inside of the baby growing in Sandra’s belly—she will lose one pregnancy and fearlessly defend keeping her second, against her doctor’s advice and to her boyfriend’s utter dismay, which pulls them apart—plus the inside of the silent monologue that we sense is building up in Sandra’s head. When an impulse comes, after her boyfriend has an altercation with another man on track, Sandra kicks the man viciously, having to be restrained. The moment conveys pride of a woman at her own strength, yet doesn’t shy away from registering the gravity and shock of seeing a woman act so violently. Despite a good number of films that portray rebellious young women acting out, the depiction of a violent adult woman—against men, herself, her family—with a convincing, bewildering force that renders her unlikable is still relatively rare (a choice that also underpins Beckhoff’s Fossil, in which the audience is dared to side with an outmoded, albeit likable, character). In Monster Insider, the story builds up quickly to the momentum in which we finally understand that Sandra is so burdened by her mother’s reliance on her—the pressures versus dreams of motherhood—she starts to see the world in opposition to her will, and her mother as an obstacle.

Ebert’s naturalist style is far from the more neatly time-ticking suspense in another German film in the same slate, Maximilian Erlenwein’s Dive, in which a young woman has very little time to save her sister, who’s trapped at the bottom of the ocean, by an enormous boulder. A marine survivalist film, Dive keeps the audience enthralled from the first to the last frame. Monster Inside manages as much with understated gestures, nevertheless keeping an equally keen sense of tempo. It is a tour de force for Hartmann, who has garnered a number of awards for her stage, television and film roles, and who’s a definite German talent to watch.

Ela Bittencourt