Stefan Krohmer's Summer '04, from a screenplay by Daniel Nocke, is the third critically-acclaimed German art film to open in New York during the past six months - which at a glance at least would seem to be a record for the post-Fassbinder (d. 1982) era. Whether this is actually the case, the appearance of Summer '04, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others and the finest of the three, Valeska Grisebach's Longing, in such short succession, constitutes a positive direction for this long underwhelming national cinema. Importantly, each was one of the first two features by a director under the age of forty: perhaps this new generation will bring us a cinema worth caring about once more.
Summer '04 treats the summer holiday of an exceedingly open-minded German couple, André and Miriam (Martina Gedeck, The Lives of Others), their fifteen year-old son Nils and his twelve year-old girlfriend Livia (Svea Lohde). The fact that their son and his Lolita-like girlfriend may be sexually active does not seem to concern the enlightened pair - that is, until Livia becomes involved with a handsome, athletic thirty-something Bill (Robert Seeliger) whom she meets while sailing with Nils.
The rather sexy Miriam in particular objects to the coupling, after Livia leaves a message that she is going to stay over at Bill's. While her partner André seems indifferent to Livia's choice, Miriam repeatedly claims that she would not want someone to allow her son to do the same without her consent; consequently she drives to the gentleman's home late in the evening to retrieve Livia. Arriving, she discovers that the young woman has left after a row with her much older companion. For his part, Bill attempts to assuage Miriam with his insistence that he has not acted inappropriately; her leaving was the result of her own immaturity.
Ultimately Livia does return, though only after Krohmer suggests that Miriam's life might be endangered in the mysterious Bill's under-lit attic. In the end, neither Miriam nor Livia is in any physical danger. Nor does it seem initially that Bill has any designs on Livia sexually - in answering Miriam's initial inquiry, he claims that he appreciates the young girl for her conversational ability (compared to the Americans with whom he had been recently spending time; significantly, Miriam quickly rejoins that she spent a year in America and met many interesting people).
Rather it is Miriam who seduces Bill, even if he seems apprehensive at first - that is, until we see the pair in a strikingly explicit sexual encounter. Suffice it to say that Krohmer and Nocke have more than their share of narrative reversals remaining in Summer '04, not the least of which is a letter dated to August of that year where Livia's true intentions are revealed. In short, Summer '04 is a work of exceptional psychological intrigue that reaches a climax (localized on one of the character's faces) during the dramatic reading of the letter in the film's final scene. As such, Krohmer's work deserves the comparisons it has generated to Roman Polanski, or as my viewing companion noted, to Claude Chabrol.
However, it is Summer '04's other speculated point-of-reference, Krohmer's almost namesake Eric Rohmer, who truly looms largest over the work: from the economy of infidelity to the rural holiday settings captured with a medium focal-length lens and natural light, from the opening credits to the specific dating of the letter to the title itself, Rohmer (i.e. Pauline at the Beach, A Tale of Springtime and A Summer's Tale) is the clear point of departure. Then again, it is worth noting that Rohmer is more an inspiration than a template for Krohmer: the dramatic pyrotechnics, underplayed as they are, nonetheless distance the German from his French influence and the latter's famed emphasis on dead time.
Still, Rohmer's impact remains unmistakable. Nowhere is this more obvious than in those moments when Krohmer films particular times of day, such as the late afternoon sun in which we see Livia and Nils arriving at a gas station, the more diffuse light that illuminates an outdoor dinner mid-evening, or most elegantly, the early twilight as Miriam drives to rescue Livia from Bill (in the scene noted above). Here, Krohmer's camera, in typically Rohmerian fashion, lingers first on the passing countryside, before showing Miriam in the cab of her auto. Come to think of it, Longing similarly highlighted this highly evocative time of night to great effect. Certainly we could do worse than to hope that an upturn in the German cinema might prominently feature an increased sensitivity to nature - and indeed, the inspiration of Rohmer more fully - that both works manifest.