Berlinale 2020 review: The Trouble With Being Born (Sandra Wollner)

Do we live through memories? Is our identity defined by them, is our imagination shaped by them? Deep existential questions that bubble up after watching Sandra Wollner’s sophomore feature The Trouble With Being Born, an unsettling film that is certain to ruffle some feathers, but rewarding to those who look beyond its troubling surface. Anchored by an eerie central performance by an underage girl, The Trouble With Being Born asks us to explore far and dark corners of our being, only to come out of it with more questions than answers. Uninviting, cold, emotionless, but ultimately striking in its execution, the film is for select audiences only. It heralds a new Austrian talent in the tradition of Michael Haneke or Ulrich Seidl, directors willing to pick at the scabs on the human soul.

Elli is a 10-year-old girl who lives with her father. Except the man isn’t her father, because she isn’t a girl. She is an android in the shape of a young girl that functions as a vessel for the man’s memories of a dark past. The exact nature of that darkness is initially not clear, and who he remembers through Elli isn’t either. Was she his daughter? His lover? They swim in the pool, he makes her dress up for him, he takes her to bed. Elli goes through the motions without emotions, only programmed to want what he wants. One night he hears something in the woods that draws him. Elli follows him, but the man gets lost in the darkness. Elli is found by strangers who reprogram her to become someone else’s flight into memory. But are memories that easy to forget, even for an android?

The Trouble With Being Born is a film that slowly pulls you in even if you’d like to stay at arm’s length. Structured in two halves, the first part is at times an uncomfortable watch as Elli and the man she calls ‘daddy’ share some increasingly intimate and inappropriate moments. Are they inappropriate when one half of the pair is an android though? There is evidence to suggest the man is a pedophile who adbucted the true Elli, so his memories are certainly tainted, but is what he is doing with a robot also dangerous (a recent study suggests it is)? In one scene the man is ‘cleaning’ Elli as if he was cleaning his food processor, showing he is consciously aware that she is not real. Still, seeing him being a little too close with a 10-year-old girl wearing makeup, android or not, is not an easy sight to digest.

It should be stressed that the well-being of the young actress playing Elli (Lena Watson, though this is not her real name) was ensured throughout the shoot, with her parents and a certified sex education specialist for children present at all times. Throughout the film she wears a silicone mask and a wig, which stunts her facial expressions, and her eyes are just the appropriate amount of dead you would expect in an inanimate pseudo-human. Yet still Watson’s performance shines through in her body language, in the facial expressions the mask does allow, and indeed in those slightly dead eyes. Sadly we will perhaps never know who really gave this performance. Dominik Warta and Ingrid Burkhard also deliver solid work, with especially Warta imbuing his ‘daddy’ character with a sadness that other films perhaps wouldn’t allow his character.

In the end, The Trouble With Being Born is not so much about Elli, but about the people she encounters and whose memories she reflects back at them like a mirror. Memories in which they drown their own stories as a release from the reality they don’t wish to live in. Elli is an escape for these wandering souls. That Wollner has chosen troubled souls with a problematic history only makes the film more interesting, even if it also deliberately pushes us away, or maybe toward a direction in our own memories where we’d rather not go.

Photo copyright: Panama Film