Film

For all its controversial subject matter, Sandra Wollner’s film is a smart, ethical investigation that doesn’t deserve to be banned. By Christos Tsiolkas.

The Trouble with Being Born

Lena Watson as Elli in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born.
Credit: Panama Film

Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born opens with a soundtrack of discordant electronic whooshes and bleeps as pixels of light struggle to emerge from some primordial darkness. Suddenly – as with the stabilising of an internet connection – the sound and images cohere, and we are walking along a verdant summer woodland as a girl’s voice narrates a memory of being awoken to the beauty of nature. The subjective gaze comes to rest on an outdoor pool, where a young girl is swimming and a middle-aged man is reading and lounging on the deck.

The girl is 10-year-old Elli (Lena Watson), and the man – ostensibly her father – is Georg (Dominik Warta). Wollner resists the narrative foreshadowing and overstatement that dominates mainstream cinema. The glazed plasticity of Elli’s facial features is initially puzzling: slowly we begin to comprehend that she is an android, and that she is modelled on Georg’s real-life daughter, who has gone missing. We are also unsettled by the physical intimacy and closeness between the man and the child. But it is only in the film’s most shocking moment – when Georg removes parts of Elli’s artificial anatomy to clean them – that we understand that the child is not human, and that Georg is using this simulacrum of his daughter for his sexual pleasure.

Given the explosive scandal of paedophilia as a subject, I think it’s important to note that Lena Watson is a pseudonym, and that her face and body have been masked through a combination of prosthetics and CGI to allow the actor who plays Elli to retain her anonymity. The filmmakers have been scrupulous in their attention to the safety of the child on set, and in protecting her from any outrage that ensues from the film’s distribution.

In any case, to reduce The Trouble with Being Born to being about paedophilia is to seriously misrepresent the film. Halfway through, Elli – as if her robot self is integrating her human father’s memory of his lost daughter – runs away from home and is picked up on the road by a man who recognises she is an android. He offers her as a gift to his isolated and lonely mother, played by Ingrid Burkhard.

The old woman’s living circumstances are almost the polar opposite to Georg’s. Where his house is a large Modernist villa, she lives in a cramped apartment on a council estate. What links them both is their shared alienation. The old woman has only the most perfunctory interactions with her neighbours; when we see her shopping or walking home, she is dwarfed by the enormous supermarket shelves of the mall, or by grim and smoggy industrial vistas. Although they are separated by age and by class, Georg and the old woman share a lacerating loneliness.

Initially suspicious of the child, the old woman eventually invests the robot with her memories and her yearnings. She re-creates Elli as Emil, the brother she tragically lost more than 60 years earlier. In their very different ways, both the old woman and the middle-aged man are exploiting the android.

In the provocativeness of this story, and its clear intent to reveal the perversions occasioned by the alienation of contemporary capitalist societies, it’s tempting to align Wollner with other Austrian filmmakers such as Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl. There are clear influences at play, from the detached defamiliarisation of the everyday world, where both industrial and natural environments are rendered uncanny and disturbing, to the theatrical sparseness of the dialogue.

This dislocation is ably assisted by the sombre work of cinematographer Timm Kröger and the abrasive musical score by Peter Kutin and David Schweighart. Elli wears a jumper that has the words “Nature is the Future” knitted across its front, but in this near-future world the blurring between the natural and the technological is indelible.

An even stronger influence is the work of contemporary Greek filmmakers such as Yorgos Lanthimos, Athina Rachel Tsangari and Babis Makridis. I was reminded of their films almost from the beginning of The Trouble with Being Born, particularly in the disjunction between the coldly reserved mise en scène and the almost arch repetitions in the writing.

This comparison also alerted me to some of Wollner’s weaknesses. She doesn’t share the mischievousness of the Greek filmmakers’ perversity, the way humour acts as an explosive release. Wollner’s intelligence and discipline are undeniable, but the execution is so unrelentingly dour that the film begins to labour in its second act. The Trouble with Being Born is studious – unrelentingly so – and as we understand the thesis of the film very quickly, this assiduousness becomes tiring.

We also miss Georg’s presence when the film shifts into the old woman’s story. Warta’s performance is very brave, as he doesn’t shirk the danger and queasiness of the father’s desire for his daughter. This doesn’t permit us to separate the abject perversity of his paedophilia from the clear love he has for the child, which may be the most scandalous aspect of the film. Whatever Wollner’s present shortcomings as a director, I respect that she gave the actor the freedom to immerse himself in the role.

We comprehend that Georg is a man whose grief and shame have led him to exile himself from the world. Warta’s subtle revelation of Georg’s self-loathing is key here: the ugliness of the father’s behaviour isn’t denied. Yet Wollner’s gaze, the lighting and framing of Georg, is sympathetic, with the filmmaker resisting the temptation to demonise him. That trust between actor and director is bracingly mature.

A larger problem is the deliberate opacity of the writing, in particular around the question of the android’s consciousness. Science fiction can be intentionally elusive and mysterious and still engage us – think of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker or Shane Carruth’s Primer – but once the science becomes illogical, the compact with the audience is betrayed.

There’s a moment late in the film when Emil commits an act of violence and passively watches the suffering of his victim. It deliberately echoes the astounding moment in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, when the extraterrestrial nonchalantly ignores a family drowning in the ocean waves. Glazer’s scene is devastating because as an audience we are forced to reflect on our own culpability in disregarding the suffering of creatures less sentient than ourselves.

There’s no similar shock of self-recognition in The Trouble with Being Born because by this point we’re already aware of the android’s mechanical docility. Wollner and her co-writer, Roderick Warich, seem uninterested in trying to understand what might be specific to the intelligence of AI. The android is clearly influenced by memory, but are these memories programmed into it by its human owners? And if so, how are they regenerated?

I suspect that for the filmmakers these matters may seem prosaic, the concerns of more conventional science fiction. By not attempting to address them, though, the filmmakers run the danger of pretension, with the unemotional, studied direction merely providing a glacial gloss to deeply troubling questions.

The riddle posed by the writing on Elli’s jumper is only ever treated superficially. Even the expertly executed opening proves to be a red herring: we never know who is watching the daughter and father by the pool. Is it meant to be the spirit of the presumably dead daughter? Or is it the ghost in the machine? The refusal to take the science seriously means that the film’s ethical and existential concerns lack profundity, and its conclusion skirts banality.

Nevertheless, snatches of the film have been returning to trouble my thoughts every time I reach for my smartphone or log on to the rabbit warren of the internet. As with the best science fiction, Wollner wants us to consider the moral consequences of the future world we are constructing.

The Trouble with Being Born found notoriety earlier this year, when it was withdrawn at the last moment from the online Melbourne International Film Festival. MIFF cited concerns from two psychologists about the potentially damaging consequences of the film – one said it normalised paedophilia, although neither had seen the film in full.

As I hope is clear from this review, I think the festival made the wrong decision, and that the film is intelligent and ethical. I do understand that the exploitation of children needs to be taken seriously. What I dislike is the attempt by MIFF to distance itself from the word “censorship”. Censors of the right and of the left, censors religious and secular, have always used the excuse of wanting to keep “us” safe. I wish the festival had the guts to own up to the truth of what it was doing. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "Troubling futures".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.