Dir: Jan Kruger. Germany 2004. 80mins.
A psychological road movie in which an outsider opens up tensions within a holidaying family, Jan Kruger's low-key but absorbing drama won one of the three Tiger Awards at this year's Rotterdam Film Festival. It should bring further plaudits to the young German director, whose second feature this is, following 2001's The Whiz Kids (Freunde). An involving narrative spiked with teasing enigmas will give En Route appeal on the festival circuit. But the slightly too familiar feel of the drama, and a sometimes prosaic look to the DV photography, will probably limit international sales to distributors with an eye to material that's off-mainstream, but not too far off.
The story of a family who befriend a mysterious - and seemingly dangerous - young loner, En Route has a sombre mood that has justifiably invoked comparison (in the Rotterdam festival catalogue) with Polanski's similarly-themed Knife In The Water and to the work of Michael Haneke. There is a superficial closeness to Haneke's family-in-peril drama Funny Games, but while Kruger's film also plays with viewer perceptions, the menace it evokes is strictly on a psychological, possibly even imaginary level.
Young mother Sandra (Lachatte) is on a camping holiday with her daughter Jule (Beyerling) and newish partner Benni (Panzner). Marco, a solitary, enigmatic youth, introduces himself in a half-friendly, half-provocative manner, and is soon accepted virtually as a new family member, even though his attitude to Jule strikes them as irresponsible. Taunting the couple about their lack of adventurousness, Marco coaxes them into an impromptu trip to Poland, where they start to ask questions about his background. Over the summer, the charismatic Marco drives a wedge between Sandra and Benni.
Writer-director Kruger tests our perceptions, since we begin the film seeing Marco through the suspicious couple's eyes, but increasingly wonder about their own characters and the state of their relationship; their view of Marco and his Polish friends also casts light on their insularity and xenophobia. Meanwhile we see Marco's enigmas and contradictions in a more nuanced light, although the young man's true nature and motivations remain elusive. With both partners influenced driven by an erotic connection to Marco, whether attraction or rivalry, a party in a deserted house ends with Benni's own unrest expressing itself -the one scene in the film that faintly stretches plausibility.
The acting is uniformly excellent, especially from Kiefer as the ambivalent and alluring Marco, and from Lachatte as a woman trying hard to maintain a facade of maternal control. In an understated but crucial role, Beyerling is impressive as the child who is both the quiet centre and the pawn in the triangle's psychological manoeuvring.
While the film does not radically depart from familiar psycho-drama territory, and stylistically has a somewhat televisual feel, Kruger is nevertheless in absolute command of his material, making for tense, intelligent viewing. The realism benefits from an interesting use of mundane locales - campsite, shipyard, beach - and the time scheme is used to unsettlingly elastic effect.
Production company: Schramm Film
International sales: Schramm Film
Producer: Florian Koerner von Gustorf
Screenplay: Jan Kruger
Cinematography: Bernadette Paassen
Production design: Beatrice Schulz
Editor: Natali Barrey
Music: Max Muller
Main cast: Anabelle Lachatte, Florian Panzner, Martin Kiefer, Lena Beyerling, Agnieszka Grochowska, Iwona Domaszewicz