How do you talk to someone who doesn’t speak your language? You either teach them yours or you learn theirs. Resources available to us in this teaching and learning expand or shrivel depending on our or the other person’s commitment to learn the language. This is possible, we can learn. But then how do you speak to someone who speaks your language, but refuses to speak it to you? Or it might be you doing the pulling-out act with another person. Without communication, what is left in a relationship? Memories, longing, a big gaping void and lost possibilities.
Families come in all hues and colours. That goes for dysfunctional families too. The source of all dysfunctionality is perhaps a lack of communication, or an improper communication. We talk, but we don’t talk of things that should be talked of. There’s not just one elephant, but a herd of them in the room. Thomas Arslan’s 2007 German movie Ferien (Vacation) shows us one such family. On one level it appears like nothing is happening with the people in the family, but that’s because all that’s happening is under the surface of their put-up exteriors.
Laura and Paul are a married couple from Berlin with two young children. It’s the summer break, and they go to her mother’s house in the countryside for their vacation. Laura’s father is estranged; her mother is married to another man, and they have an adolescent son. Laura has a sister with whom she hasn’t talked in years.
Laura and her family going to her mother’s is a reunion that is drained of all joy, for nobody knows what’s happening in the lives of the others. A need to belong and to be understood is common with most humans. Laura is most humans; but she is trying to find her needs met with a man who isn’t her husband. Paul is shocked to know of this, he tries to make amends, but Laura is too far gone to get back on the amendment path. This revelation happens during the vacation.
Laura’s grandmother comes to stay with them. She is sick and needs medical attention. With the appearance of the “elderly woman” on the scene, I willed myself to believe things would change for the better for the family with her advice to them. But that isn’t how the story unfolds. The grandmother dies. Laura, her mother and her sister, who has also come to visit them, have a spat. But it’s just a loud spat; it lacks the necessary intensity, and things continue to simmer. Perhaps it’s true that an outburst at times is utterly meaningless. An outburst doesn’t necessarily change anything unless those at whom it is aimed care enough for the outburst to even stand for anything.
Two telling lines delivered by Laura’s sister stand out. The first is when she and Laura are talking and she says something to the effect of: We wait all this while to come meet our family, and then wonder… She leaves the sentence dangling. The second line delivered by her: I could live at the end of the world, and still not be free of you lot. Exasperation.
Laura’s mother can’t stand being in her house and wants to move to Berlin to start her life afresh. Her half-brother wants to run away (with his girlfriend) to some place that isn’t his small countryside environs. Everyone is fighting their battles in the movie, but they are all doing it alone.
Other things that stood out for me: Laura and Paul’s children too are ghost versions of the adults around them. Life seeps away, and things move on. Or stay the same. The movie has so much silent noise that it doesn’t have music in it, except for the brief keys played by Laura’s sister on a piano. The mitochondrion may be the powerhouse of the cell, but without the conduits for the transport of material between the cell and its exterior, cells cease to function properly. There’s an analogy here with our lived lives in light of the movie. I’ll leave it to you to figure out. The movie works on absences. In a particular scene Laura is talking to her mother and grandmother. Three generation of women seated together, and all we get there is static; an absence of flow. A flow that could have held them together.
Ferien doesn’t preach. It doesn’t lead by example on how to make things better. It just is, in all its bleak everydayness that the characters are now so accustomed to. There’s just the vacation in the movie, after which the characters must get back to their lives. How will they decide to live their lives thence? That would be the subject matter for a hypothetical movie named After the Vacation, and this one doesn’t go there. Karoline Eichorn, who plays Laura, is a perfect fit to the role. Exasperated by her, her sister says: I could punch her scrunched-up face. The performances of the other actors in the movie, especially Angela Winkler, who plays Laura’s mother, are remarkable too for their everyday-despondent portrayals. One is so involved in their lives that one wants to punch all their scrunched-up faces and say: live.