Color, 2014, 95m.
Directed by Curtis Burz
Starring Sten Jacobs, Anna Altmann, Jaspar Fuld, Nina Splettstösser, Stephan Bürgi
Artsploitation (DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
As uncomfortable as any drama in recent memory, this German production tips its hat to some of the godfathers of art cinema like Rainer Werner Fassbinder (particularly in its casting of leading man Sten Jacobs) and Claude Chabrol (with its thriller-style construction of a family's internal breakdown). However, its choice of subject matter is bound to make it a dicier proposition with its target audience, creating a level of psychological queasiness that's hard to shake.
Markus Larsen (Jacobs) seems to have an enviable life, at least based on outward appearances. He has a devoted wife, Christine (Altmann), and an unusually perceptive prepubescent daughter, Elisabeth (Splettstösser), but both suffer from a lack of attention due to their father's secret bisexual proclivities. One of Elisabeth's friends, Johannes (Fuld), is her same age and also the son of Makus' business partner, Christopher (Bürgi), whose financial difficulties are pulling his attention away from his son. That opens the door for Markus to develop an unhealthy fixation on Johannes, eventually turning in to an obsession that threatens to tear the entire family to shreds.
The basic gist of this story is hardly uncharted territory, with past treatments ranging from the oblique and artistic (most notably Visconti's Death in Venice) to button-pushing black comedy (Happiness). This one takes a different approach by bathing it in an unsettling sunny dreaminess, focusing on the perspectives of the two young characters as much as the adults. The end result is often disorienting as its detached, seemingly peaceful approach forces the viewer to only start squirming gradually rather than delivering a series of moral shocks; by the end you're left drained and even a bit stunned by the third act turnabout from one significant character, a narrative experience akin to a lobster boiling in a pot. There's nothing particularly explicit or overtly offensive in the film; if you broke it down shot by shot, there's nothing you couldn't air during an average basic cable TV show. However, it's the accumulation of lingering looks and betrayals that really adds up and results in an experience that lingers in the memory.
Never afraid to venture into touchy terrain (as proven already with the much rougher The Treatment), Artsploitation brings The Summer House to DVD with a beautiful, crystalline transfer that's about as good as you could hope with an SD presentation. The German stereo audio is presented with optional English subtitles, all excellent. Though it isn't fully played up on the packaging, this might actually be their most stacked release to date as it packs in 7 minutes of rehearsal footage from the dinner scene, a slightly different 9-minute alternate ending, 7 minutes of deleted and extended scenes (nothing revelatory but interesting for their character development), a 21-minute interview with director Curtis Burz, a 7-minute chats with cinematographers Peter Serbera and Andreas Gockel, an 8-minute interview with composer Bastian Schick, and separate discussions with actors Jacobs (14 mins), who looks way more friendly and benign here, and Altmann (7 mins), who cover everything from the deliberately slow storytelling style to the jovial nature of the shoot itself and the tactics they used to convey the deeply flawed characters. Also included on the disc are the theatrical trailer and bonus ones for Cub, Der Samurai, Horsehead, and Reckless.