There’s something Michael Haneke-like about Matthias Luthardt’s Pingpong, an impressive debut feature that comes along on the crest of the wave of new German cinema making such an impact at the moment. Sparse, tense, leaving much unspoken, but with an underlying suggestion of violence just beneath the surface, the film sets about dissecting the neuroses of a bourgeois German family with surgical precision, exposing their weakness with surprising yet understated vehemence.
Unlike Haneke, who in films like The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and Funny Games leaves much of the connection between the moral discontent and the self-destructive violence to the viewer to reason out, Luthardt takes a seemingly more traditional approach, with a strong dramatic, almost theatrical structure and the introduction of an outside element to play havoc with the lives of a typical middle-class family.
That troublesome element is Paul (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a young 19 year-old boy, he has come to stay with his uncle Stefan and his family – wife Anna and their son Robert – during the summer at their house in the country. Paul’s father has just died, committing suicide, leaving the boy lost and confused, needing to get away from his mother, find some breathing space and work things out. His presence however reveals the cracks in this apparently close, comfortable family unit.
Initially, Paul’s presence is a nuisance to them. They have other concerns with keeping their important place in the world - Stefan (Falk Rockstroh) is occupied with his business, while Anna (Marion Mitterhammer) dotes over her pet dog Schumann, pushing their son Robert (Clemens Berg) to practice on the piano for an important audition to get into music school. Paul however pitches in and does his bit, helping out at the renovation of an old swimming pool in the family’s garden which has fallen into disuse. While on the surface everything looks idyllic, Paul’s presence causes ripples that bring out the underlying sickness in the family unit.
It’s not difficult to notice the symbolism behind the characters here – the poor relative from the East, his father of Russian origin having committed suicide, Paul is reluctantly taken in by the affluent Western family, who feel it is their duty to put him up (and Paul wants his old guest room back) although it is something they could really rather do without, having no idea when he is going to be back on his feet and able to look after himself. While this is certainly an interesting reading of the film, it is not over-emphasised to the detriment of the script or the drama.
There are only four characters (and a dog, let’s not forget) and one setting used throughout Pingpong, so much of it inevitably relies on the strength of the script and the performances. There is little that is revealed about the characters through the dialogue – it rather is used to keep up that surface of respectability – but much more through Luthardt’s impressive direction and the performances of a note-perfect cast. Anna is the pivotal character in the film, and Marion Mitterhammer delivers a magnificent, nuanced performance that carries much of the complexity of the situation – self-possessed, strong and decisive, even domineering, she is also capable of love and warmth, but her good intentions can be misdirected and her actions unfathomable. The director also uses little incidents like the reconstruction of the swimming pool, the playing of table tennis, the use of the Berg sonata played on the piano by Robert, an injury sustained in the cutting of a tree and even the persistent presence of flies and wasps crawling everywhere to reveal the nature of the characters, expose the sordidness of the whole bourgeois setup, and build up an incredibly tense situation that is just waiting to ignite.
(Pingpong is on general release in France. There is currently no date for a UK theatrical release of the film).
Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:13:04