Fragmented memories

Sabrina Mertens and Jan Fabi on capturing something amiss in Time Of Moulting

by Jennie Kermode

Time Of Moulting
Time Of Moulting Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

One of the strongest films at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and also one of the most unusual, Time Of Moulting is an exploration of one girl’s journey as she grows up in a cramped flat in Seventies and eighties Germany, largely ignored by the people around her. It’s framed by a series of 57 static camera shots, giving viewers the impression of flicking back through an old photo album which brings memories to life as actors Zelda Espanschied and Miriam Schiweck portray the girl, Stephanie, at different stages in her life. It’s a film that feels incredibly complete, part of a universe that extends far beyond the screen. Braving an interview not in her native language, director Sabrina Mertens told me that it emerged from a mixture of different ideas.

“I started with the idea to make a classical horror movie,” she says, “but then I was thinking about topics and I tried to find something a bit new and then everything came more and more to psychological things. I was finding out that it's more interesting to make something about psychological aspects of life and not to show drastic things, more to let them grow in the mind of the audience.”

It was inspired in part by a criminal case in Germany, she says, though she doesn’t want to go into detail. She was interested in exploring the kind of circumstances that might lead to someone growing up with urges that were difficult for others to understand.

“Another topic is images, the trauma of generations, traumatic experiences from the generation of the Second World War,” she adds. “some families, they are stuck in some state of mind and stuck in the time and they give it to the daughter. She is growing up and then more and more fleeing into this dark fantasy world because reality is so depressing and then yeah, it's the relationships with the mother and the father. Everything is kind of messed up. I think for me it was important not to to do big drastic scenes. I tried to make it more substantial so that you don't know what is going on but you know something's wrong here.”

I tell her that it reminded me of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and she says she hasn’t actually seen that but as I’m not the first person to make the comparison, she thinks she probably should.

“I like very much the static camera shot,” she responds when I ask about the film’s unusual form, admitting that it’s nice not to have to do as much editing but adding “I like when everything in a scene happens in real time but it's actor driven.” She like the idea of the viewer, rather than the director or camera operator or editor, deciding what to pay attention to in each shot, and suggests watching the film repeatedly to explore more of what’s there. As a director she is able to focus on the actors and also on creating the environments we see them in.

I suggest that this approach adds to the sense of claustrophobia in the film – the impression it creates that most of Stephanie’s life is played out within the confines of a very limited environment.

“Yeah, I mean they have this flat which is not very big. I mean they are in the garden as well but everything is limited... But for me it was, I think mostly about the relationships. They are stuck in some static situation going on, but there's no development.”

There's something that that does change, I observe, and that’s the way that the flat becomes still more cramped over time as clutter builds up within it. How did they approach the set design?

“The location was a real flat,” she says, explaining that she spent a long time searching for the right one. ”And finally, I found that and a lot of things were there. So in in this flat I had some furniture from the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, and a lot of other things. I had to bring not much In addition. Because I'm in student production and we had a very limited budget, and not much time, it was really lucky to find this.”

And she has two amazing actors playing Stephanie. Finding Zelda began with putting up flyers in schools, she says, and then holding auditions over two days

“She was one of the applicants and she was, from the beginning, outstanding. Yeah, very much the best of all the girls and most special. And she did very, very, very good work. She understood very well what the role was and how Stephanie is and she was really amazing. And sometimes she had some ideas that were not in the script. When she was talking with the snails and some other things, like jumping on a pillow when she was with her mama. That was an improvisation as well.”

To find the older girl, she searched on Facebook.

“I compared actresses. I had some pictures of the little one and I tried to make some overlays on Photoshop to find somebody with the same face structure... An actor from another project that I did before here is a friend of Miriam, so I found her and she did an online casting. And I said, ‘Yeah, okay, she's good.’ She's very talented at drawing as well. The drawings in the film are by her.”

I tell her that what stands out about the film to me is how complete it feels, like a real life condensed into one film. She wrote the first version of t during her first year at film school, she tells me, and redrafted it several times.

“I was thinking about how to find a way to tell a story and there was, kind of, when you remember special situations in your life, like you have these little flashbacks, some moments or scenes you can remember. That was the approach, to make a fragmented structure of memories, so at the beginning it was shorter and not so many episodes. So that was step one, a long time ago, and then I think it was two years later or something like that I decided to realise the idea, and then I was writing again.”

Did she have any idea that it would get the attract of attention that it has from film festivals?

“I hoped that, of course! I mean, you never know for sure. I was working quite long on the production so I was just happy to finish it. We liked it, but we did not really know how it would be with the festivals. So it was of course very nice that we have been at Rotterdam and the German Max Ophuls festival as well.”

At present she’s working on a short film, she says, but it’s close to completion. then she’ll be developing her diploma film, which she hopes will be another feature. It’s about someone else from a problematic family background who is trying to find his own direction in life and is frustrated by the social system and the job centre trying to make decisions for him. I tell her that I’d love to see it when it’s finished and she introduces me to her cinematographer, Jan Fabi. He has been sitting nearby in their editing suite where they’re grading their short, helping out with bits of translation, and will be working with her on future projects as he did on Time Of Moulting.

“We’re like Bonnie and Clyde,” they tell me, bumping elbows and grinning.

I ask Jan how he managed the lighting in the cramped spaces where Time Of Moulting was shot.

“When it comes to lighting, there's like two ways of lighting the scene,” he says. “You know, you can either place lights and light a scene or you can just take away the light, which is equally important, and since The flat was located in the first floor and we couldn't light it from outside we kind of had to use the available light we had and adapt it.”

He used yellow filters, he explains, to give the film an old, neglected look that would complement the story.

“Everyone has a grandma, you know. She still lives in this old house and the wall has become like, yellowish. And that was the approach when we graded it. When we shot in the attic, we had this small window, you know, and we kind of made it black but we used like a really tiny spot for the light to only hit her [Zelda], you know? To keep the walls as black as possible to really focus on her playing with the bolt gun...The flat already represents the characters quite well. But when there’s sunlight illuminating the whole flat, you know, it looked quite friendly. And that's not what we really wanted to tell.”

They have several more festivals coming up, they tell me, but as these haven’t announced their line-ups yet, they’re not allowed to discuss them publicly. They’re also busy, at present, looking for finance for their future projects, but they’re bursting with ambition and nothing seems likely to slow them down.

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