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The Trouble with Being Born

Elli is a pre-pubescent girl who lives with a man she calls “Papa” in a huge house with its own swimming pool. As the film goes on, their behaviour together becomes increasingly inappropriate. She lounges around the pool, naked. The way they look at each other looks like something more than a healthy father-daughter relationship. And there they are, in bed together and he’s got his kit off.

But its all right folks, because she’s not really a little girl at all – she’s an android. Ok, she occasionally malfunctions and has to be rebooted. And every so often Papa needs to clean her parts. But it’s not creepy at all. He just created her to replace his real life daughter, who one day just wandered off.

Elli has been programmed to reproduce the vocabulary and behaviour of the girl she replaced. Which is fine until the day she wanders off herself. After trampling through the forest, she is picked up by a man who takes her to the mother he generally neglects. Elli promptly becomes Emil, and replaces the brother the old woman lost 60 years ago.

Maybe now is the time that I come clean on why I don’t like a significant number of science fiction films. Often they find a really neat idea – in this case the ethics of android sex dolls or the extent to which loneliness and alienation can be overcome by creating people who don’t really exist – and then proceed to do absolutely nothing to build on this idea. I rather fear that this is what happens here.

So, yes it is creepy to see the rich man leering over a cyborg sex robot. And then its creepy to see it again. But that’s pretty much it. An interesting proposition is raised, but the film doesn’t really try to interrogate it. Similarly, the second half depicts alienation and boredom so accurately that our main response is to be alienated and bored.

I wonder if there’s a humanity-based version of the Bechdel test, which ask if any characters in a film talk to any other characters about any bloody thing. If there is, I’m not sure that The Trouble with Being Born would pass. It is all so bloody alienating that we are not able to engage with any of the characters or to see them as human beings (even those who aren’t androids).

There are a lot of longueurs in the film. Many of the scenes are filmed with the backdrop of grey buildings and soulless shopping malls. And it is very, very dark. Not in the sense that it has a wicked sense of humour, but that it is almost impossible to see what is going on. Added to this, everyone is speaking in an almost impenetrable Austrian accent, never the easiest to understand.

I was continually asking myself “just what is happening here?” and “why are they doing this?” But pretty soon these questions were replaced by an overwhelming “why should I be interested in any of this?” It was the cinematic equivalent of a Joseph Beuys installation – if you’ve read the press notes and know what it’s all supposed to mean, maybe you can feel smug about yourself, but it’s not what I’d call entertainment.

Around this time of year, German cinemas slowly fill with local films that have shown at the Berlinale. Sometimes, this is very good indeed. We got to see the marvellous Systemsprenger in Multiplexes years before it hit the art house cinemas in other countries. The Berlinale is a great festival, and I’m glad that it takes place in my home time.

More often than not, though, we have to wade through worthy but dull films, which have Something Important to say, but seem unable to use a language to address a non-pretentious audience. Usually they have won an Important Prize (this one won the Special Jury Prize). And they are often entirely unwatchable.

I like the idea that films play around with ideas and don’t just show repeated car chases or franchise uniforms on sale in the foyer. But they do need to offer us at least the possibility of feeling some empathy. By the time that I realised that I didn’t care what happens to any of them (fairly early on here); I was just willing it all to end.

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