06th Nov2017

‘The Spiderwebhouse (Im Spinnwebhaus)’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Ben Litwinschuh, Lutz Simon Eilert, Helena Pieske, Ludwig Trepte, Sylvie Testud | Written by Johanna Stuttmann | Directed by Mara Eibl-Eibesfeldt

The-Spiderwebhouse-poster

We first see Sabine (Sylvie Testud) in happier times, frolicking with her three young kids: Jonas (Ben Litwinschuh), Nick (Lutz Simon Eilert) and Miechen (Helena Pieske). But Sabine, suffering with mental health problems, can’t cope with her parental responsibilities. The father is well-meaning, although any assistance is strictly of the remote, debit card variety. One day, Sabine books herself into hospital to get over her “demons”, leaving Jonas, the eldest, in charge.

After the initial thrill of adult-free independence, the house falls into disrepair. While scavenging in bins, Jonas meets Felix (Ludwig Trepte), who becomes a kind of mentor. Felix mocks Jonas – he calls him “Dwarf” – but they strike up an awkward friendship. Despite Jonas’s best efforts, his siblings are ill and starving and their home is becoming shrouded in cobwebs. Do they have the courage and skills to stay alive until their mother – hopefully – comes home?

Director Mara Eibl-Eibesfeldt shoots in beautifully crisp monochrome, and at times the framing recalls Sanjarit Ray in its combination of shadow and destitution. There’s a hint of Tideland in the film’s fantastical poverty and the games the kids play in order to escape it – although it’s not as smart or funny or dark a film as Terry Gilliam’s. I was also reminded of Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies in the film’s depiction of childish innocence against the backdrop of extreme misery.

However, that anime classic was set in a post-apocalyptic wartime wasteland, so there was a compelling reason for its characters to be helpless. The Spiderwebhouse doesn’t have such a context, so its character motivations often fail to convince. That Jonas should remain loyal to his mother – despite her ongoing absence; despite his dying sister; despite the relative uselessness of Felix; despite the constant offers of help from his teacher – ultimately doesn’t ring true, meaning the low-key ending is more of a shrug than a masterstroke of ambiguity.

Instead, it’s a setup for a somewhat cutesy perspective on poverty, which, rather than being enriched, is drilled into winsomeness by the film’s fairy tale overtones: the precious, tinkly score; the pantomime Felix beckoning Jonas from the path; or an aimless subplot about the spirit of Sabine existing in a “soul bird”. Miechen even invents a whole new fantasy world to escape to. But any sense of escapist tragedy is neutered by real-world implausibility.

It’s understandable that Jonas would gravitate toward someone who can ease the pressure. But if the whip-smart elder is going to reach out, why Felix, and not someone responsible? Someone competent and kind; someone who won’t call him names and who won’t menace him with an almost sexualised intensity. Jonas is presented as sensible and sensitive, so his relationship with the reckless Felix seems far-fetched, undermining the central relationship of the movie.

The performances are fine, though unremarkable. The movie hangs on Litwinschuh, so it’s disappointing that he isn’t quite able to deliver the range that the role demands. The arc of Jonas is one which demands a shift from serenity to feral rage, and unfortunately, Litwinschuh never fully makes the journey.

Overall, I was left with a sense of the inconsequential. Everyone knows that children will struggle when left without guardianship. So, despite the handsome craft, it’s hard to nail the purpose of the film – a film which leaves no hard questions in its wake, and ultimately holds aspirations no higher than the low-hanging fruit of sentimentality.

The Spiderwebhouse (Im Spinnwebhaus) hits theaters and VOD on November 7th, from Uncork’d Entertainment.

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