Fellwechselzeit, Time of Moulting is a hypnotic view of mental illness and the legacy our family leaves behind.
If there could be a more perfect time for Sabrina Mertens’ Time of Moulting, I don’t want to see it. Mertens who wrote and directed the agonizing view of a troubled family captures in short glimpses the entire picture of a family in crisis and a girl pushed to the brink. It is haunting and grotesque, sad and searing, and like nothing, you have seen before. What Gummo did for the death of small-town America and the characters left to rot there, Time of Moulting shines a light into the darkest recess of the human condition and finds the abyss staring back. Brace yourself; there is no happy ending, just a conclusion.
Time of Moulting is the story of Stephanie split into two blocks of time over ten years. We first meet Stephanie as a young girl played convincingly by Zelda Espenscheid who holds her scenes grounded by sheer will alone. Her parents have cut themselves and Stephanie off from the world primarily because of Stephanie’s mother. Her mother has extreme episodes of depression and anxiety. She spends most of her time surrounded by childhood toys and games. Mother is lost in memories and dreams of what could have been. Stepanie’s father(Bernd Wolff) clings to complacency like a child to a well-worn blanket. It is frayed and dirty but better than nothing. Both adults are too entrenched in their own issues to provide their child what she needs.
Stephanie is left to her own devices to entertain and educate herself. This is a girl so desperate for something interesting to happen raw meat holds an appeal. This first act provides the context for the quiet horror of the finale. Neither Mother(Freya Kreutzkam) or Father is intentionally harmful, which makes it even more heartbreaking. Some vignettes are as banal as everyday life while others have such crushing dread it is breathtaking. Whispered comments and strange looks speak volumes about what is really happening in this house.
As time marches on, Stephanie becomes increasingly cruel and frustrated. Self-harm and sexual awakenings are each shot with an unflinching eye on Stephanie’s emotional state. Repressed desires and unspoken abuse take their toll on her and the entire family. The tragic final act delivers a one-two punch of longing and depravity. Desperate behaviors pave the way for what is to come long before any real violence ensues. This is the very picture of the cyclical nature of mental illness if left unchecked.
The family does leave the house on occasion. Stephanie goes to school, and her father to work, and the market, but the viewer never leaves the cluttered house. That claustrophobic nature of a crumbling home provides the right frame of mind to relate to her. We see the nightmare she is in well before Stephanie does. By the time an ominous Ten Years Later flashes on the screen, Stephanie has realized she can’t escape the past, regardless of how badly she wants to.
The soundtrack by Ole Ohlendorf and Jonathan Rösch is familiar yet utterly alien and adds to the otherwordly atmosphere. It is unsettling and introspective in uncomfortable measures. Plinking notes and rising crescendos create tension that is at times suffocating in its intensity. Set design by Mertens herself and photography by Jani Fabi is the very picture of stagnation and neglect. Horror films are seldom as artful as this. In tone and spirit, Time of Moulting is reminiscent of another German film Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse. Gorgeous, intimate, patient, and terrifying, it is a slow-motion train wreck you wish you could avoid but are doomed to watch.
Time of Moulting playing as part of the Final Girls Berlin Film Fest isn’t your traditional horror movie. That doesn’t mean it isn’t horrific and bone-chillingly terrifying. Just that it relies more on the innate corruption of humans than on jump scares and supernatural haunts. Broken into 57 sequences or snapshots of life it is a gorgeous and putrid look at the decay of unchecked familiar trauma and the long-term effects of the abuse that follows. Mertens creates fear with the possibility of the unknown. Clever scenes of contentment share space with utter madness until all that is left is absolution. Whether that be from acceptance or forcible mutilation, there is a change coming, and it is Stephanie’s time to transform.
Stagnation is death. As reality becomes fused with fantastical fairy tales and stories of the past Stephanie has to choose to change or be stuck forever. Long after the credits roll the harrowing coming of age story is sure to be talked about. Mertens smartly doesn’t take the predictable road but instead leaves us strangely unresolved. There is a stain on this family that no amount of scrubbing or painting over can ever remove. Time of Moulting is a psychological slow-burner designer to scar and brand the viewer with the mundane. Just as the family is powerless to escape, we are powerless to intervene. It is playing online now as part of the Final Girls Berlin Film Fest while it awaits worldwide release.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.