As much a bulls-eyed survey of contemporary German attitudes toward youth, aging, sex, and class as a classic psychological thriller set against a deceptively serene summer idyll, Summer ’04 walks a fine line between compelling and camp. What keeps director Stefan Krohmer’s second film (the follow-up to 2003’s They’ve Got Knut) from crossing into the realm of high melodrama are the deeply, delicately drawn performances of his five-person cast.
André (Peter Davor) and Miriam (Martina Gedeck, recently seen in The Lives of Others) are a couple easing into middle age with their dignity and waistlines intact. Their seaside summer home is a family refuge even surly teenage son Nils (Lucas Kotaranin) can’t resist; sailing and gardening pass the days and the occasional throw down at the badminton net is the extent of family conflict. This particular summer, however, Nils has invited his pre-teen, precocious girlfriend Livia (Svea Lohde) to join them, and his parents dissect the dynamic between the young lovers in what has to be the creepiest form of pillow talk this side of Doris and Rock. Their home is tranquil and abundant, their leisure well-earned and well-spent, lacking the guilt-ridden indulgence of Americans on holiday. And yet into this coziness Krohmer injects a slightly off-kilter detail here and there, holding onto pleasant, familial tableaux for a beat too long; the rhythm is never quite what it seems.
With that incongruous German tendency to treat the outrageous as commonplace, screenwriter Daniel Nocke’s dialogue has a frankness that may send American eyebrows soaring: “Now we’re friends who might have sex,” Livia casually tells André of his recently dumped son, and the grown man doesn’t bat an eye. In the world of Summer ’04 everything is heightened—even that bracing German candor. The actors rise to the challenge of Nocke’s tricky, high-flown script, and Krohmer meets them there.
When Livia develops a crush and begins spending time alone with Bill Ginger (Robert Seeliger), the swish young German-American shacked up nearby, Miriam and André dither over what, if anything, is to be done. Oddly loathe to judge a 12-year-old, citing her right to privacy and the sovereignty of her decisions, the couple is mortified at the prospect of being thought “square,” though Miriam finally comes to her senses (and, one would imagine, the side of her cuckolded son) and moves to pluck her nubile charge from what seems to be a pervy lion’s den.
The ensuing scene, a deliciously loaded pas de deux between Bill and Miriam, with Livia nowhere to be found, marks a turning point in the film; the methodically threaded and crossed high wires of tension are slowly, expertly tightened, one by one, and we wait anxiously for release. Elements of L’Avventura, Swimming Pool, and even A Place in the Sun materialize in the film’s sophisticated layering of theme and counter- theme, and Gedeck in particular successfully invests her lightly defiant sensuality in this thorough and thoroughly engaging investigation of age (and entitlement) before beauty.