Pulling from all the gloomiest elements of social realism and ‘kitchen sink’ dramas, Sabrina Mertens’ feature debut Time of Moulting examines the hardships faced by one young girl in 1970s Germany as she goes through adolescence in near total isolation from the outside world.
Swathed in shades of brown and sepia—the shadows cast by ever-growing piles of clutter around the cramped home creating a looming sense of gloom— Mertens’ film is structured in an episodic nature, consisting of 57 ‘episodes’. These vignettes show the life of young Stephanie (as a child played by Zelda Espenschied and as a teen by Miriam Schiweck) as she navigates the limited world around her: her bedroom, the kitchen and creepy storage room. Stephanie’s world is so limited due to a mother with an increasingly distressing mental condition and a dismissive, angry father (Bernd Wolf). Her mother (Freya Kreutzkam) lives an almost infantile life, spending most of her days in a room she seems to share with Stephanie, in bed, surrounded by stuffed animals. Often this is Stephanie’s only real source of friendship, as her mother in a way ‘stoops to her level’, playing with toys and jumping on the rickety beds. Stephanie is kept away from other children, doesn’t have new clothes or toys and is generally stifled socially and creatively.
Mertens creates an atmosphere of sheer hopelessness and never lets it wane, the entire film is grim, dirty and unpleasant. Stephanie’s helplessness in her situation has her resort to creating violent fantasies after uncovering family relics of belonging to her grandfather in the storage room; a photo album and a suitcase of strange tools from yesteryear (presumably dating to WW2). She uses this violence— which begins with simple things such as fixating on and handling uncooked meat and then in her teen years leading to much darker self-mutilation and violent masturbation— to regain a sense of control and purpose in her life. The film is rarely graphic when she lives out her fantasies, but maintains a wild sense of unease as if watching a documentary. Its difficult to put across just how depressing Time of Moulting is to watch as a viewer, especially during our own times of quarantining in our homes. It often feels like there is no resolve and no escape (I even watched this twice to see if I had missed some greater, over-arching message or shred of optimism). The sheer lack of momentum throughout the mere 80 minute runtime ends up leaving the film laboriously dragged out.
Despite its shortcomings as an engaging story, the film is wonderfully shot. Cinematograher Jan Fabi keeps the film claustrophobic and completely reliant on shadows, to the point where the magnolia walls often look mouldy thanks to the encroaching darkness in most of the frames. This feeling is further exacerbated by the episodic nature of the film, moving from room to room but with very little actual movement from the characters, we are simply dropped within the home into different scenes that feel purposefully disjointed and maddening. Young actress Zelda Espenschied is also particularly interesting to watch as Stephanie, the film contains some deep and heavy material for a child to work with and she handles it with ease and intrigue.
Perhaps watching Time of Moulting at a different time might have stemmed more of an admirable response, unfortunately during these uncertain times its difficult to be objective when consuming media when your mind has been clouded with isolation, viruses and your own downtrodden spirit. A film like Mertens’ debut echoes so many people’s current experiences with the COVID-19 lockdowns that its unforgiving nature is nothing but a stark reminder of our own time trapped in the confines of our home. While its visual style echoes the best of the more low-key European horror, with some fine performances all round, the lack of direction for poor Stephanie’s adolescence would be a difficult one to stomach even at the best of times.
Time of Moulting is playing at the virtual edition of Fantasia Festival 2020, screening on August 23rd and 27th.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She works as a teacher in the GLAM sector and freelances as a costume designer and maker living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Green Room and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Letterboxd here.