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SF IndieFest Review: ‘Still Life’ Is a Quietly Devastating Look At the Unimaginable

By  · Published on February 13th, 2012

The 14th Annual SF IndieFest runs February 9th-23rd at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Check out the official site for further film details.

A man named Gerhard writes and narrates his instructions to a prostitute as to how he wants their time together to go. “Your caresses should be tender and shy,” he says. “I want you to put it in your mouth. It won’t take long.” His preferences continue including how she can yell at him or fall asleep beside him as long as she showers afterwards, sits in his lap soaking wet and lets him call her Lydia.

Gerhard returns home to his wife where the two await the arrival of their adult son and daughter. Their son, Bernhard, discovers the note beforehand and doesn’t show.

But their daughter Lydia does.

“I should have known.”

Bernhard (Christoph Luser) had followed his father (Fritz Hörtenhuber) to the prostitute and afterwards retrieved the letter from her. He’s taken aback, understandably, but doesn’t quite know what to do. When he finally arrives home to attend a family session for Gerhard’s alcoholism he presents the note to his dad for an explanation. Gerhard leaves, saying nothing with his voice but everything with his eyes, and the letter gets shared with Lydia (Daniela Golpashin) and their mother.

What follows are the multiple threads of the four family members over the next twenty four hours as they each struggle to understand the revelation. While Gerhard ponders turning himself in or picking up a shotgun his wife gives in to a shocked resignation and acceptance. Bernhard meanwhile tries to make amends with Lydia over the guilt he feels for not recognizing their reality sooner. They find a tin of photos in their dad’s shed, and it’s filled with pictures of her as a child in random states of undress.

Bernhard found it the first time when he was just a boy, but in a misguided and heartbreaking act of jealousy did nothing about it. He was jealous because he had been cut out of the photos. (Shades of Todd Solondz’ soul crushing but hilarious Happiness there.) Now he wonders if he could have prevented possible tragedies if he had spoken earlier.

The revelation at the core of Still Life (aka Stillleben) is almost unimaginable, and it would be easy to take the story down some melodramatic paths. Co-writer/director Sebastian Meise wisely and beautifully avoids that trap though and relies on his actors to deliver the story with honest humanity. How would you possibly deal with the discovery that your father harbored sexual thoughts and desires for one of your siblings? Or for you? It’s almost impossible to comprehend, but the cast makes it a wrenching reality.

Much of the communication between them (and with viewers) is accomplished with little to no dialogue. Anger, fear, sadness and more emanate from their eyes as if mere words could never do justice to the emotions they’re feeling. Hörtenhuber in particular moves between guilt, shame and loss without saying a word, and the effect is an all encompassing sadness.

The topic is one that could have easily descended into a salacious movie of the week, but it deserves and receives a far more sober and affecting approach here.

Still Life screens Thursday, February 16, at 9:30PM.

The 14th Annual SF IndieFest runs February 9th-23rd at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Check out the official site for further film details.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.