Dir: Jakob M. Erwa. Germany. 2015. 98mins


 “It’s the subtle nuances. They make the difference,” says a character in German psychological thriller HomeSick. He’s talking about classical music performance, but the phrase applies equally to Jakob M. Erwa’s economically executed piece, which marries Polanski-style creepiness to Haneke-esque restraint. This low-budget crowd-funded exercise by the director of 2007’s Heile Welt is consistently engrossing, and boasts a compellingly tense performance by Esther Maria Pietsch, excelling in her first lead. Low-key but cannily effective, HomeSick will appeal to festivals, especially those with a thriller or horror bent, and to buyers of both art-house and upmarket genre material.

Overall HomeSick is a sure-footed, satisfying performance and that rarity, a German genre exercise that could score internationally. 

The misleading English title – wordplay that will fall flat on Anglophone ears – refers to the subject, domestic malaise. Jessica (Pietsch) and Lorenz (Lier) are a couple moving into a new flat – a cavernous, undecorated den with distressed walls, just the space to appeal to young urban bohemians. She’s a highly driven cello student, who learns that she’s been chosen to represent Germany in a prestigious international competition; no pressure, then. Everything looks good for the couple, who even acquire a kitten to cosy the place up (always a bad idea in such films, especially for the cat).

The first sign of trouble comes when elderly upstairs neighbour Hilde Domweber (Seibt) drops by to complain about late night music. Ill feelings are apparently resolved when the couple go and apologise to Mrs Domweber, the block’s “unofficial caretaker”, who makes her own peace offering, an unsightly angel figurine. Then things take a strange turn: someone keeps ringing the doorbell, Mrs D appears to be spying from an upstairs window, and a very unwelcome welcome gift is left on the couple’s doorstep. Is their neighbour playing a vicious game, or is Jessica – prey to assorted inner stresses – spinning a paranoid fantasy? 

The unease is nicely modulated throughout, with the action restricted almost entirely to apartment block interiors, barring a couple of street scenes and visits to Jessica’s music school. At the start, cinematographer Christian Trieloff establishes a rigorous tone with a series of austere shots of the empty apartment; later, inserts of the building’s exterior at night quietly boost the menacing mood.

Throughout, Erwa creates a tantalising discrepancy between Jessica’s crescendo of anxiety and the calm that generally seems to reign in the building, where other neighbours see nothing out of order. Pietsch delicately cranks up Jessica’s vulnerability before letting rip in a number of memorably nerve-jangling outbursts. And Tatja Seibt is quietly unsettling as the woman upstairs, whose prickly politeness comes across as either sinister or altogether benign, depending on the perspectives that Erwa encourages us to view her from.

The film resounds with echoes of Roman Polanski’s claustrophobic chiller mode (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant) with Erwa’s detachment adding a distinctive spin. That makes it all the more effective when HomeSick supplies its shocks, ranging from the generically abrupt to the intense, altogether Haneke-like climax. Subtle sound design by the film’s composer Christofer Frank especially makes ingenious use of Jessica’s cello, sometimes heard only as a muted but nerve-grating buzz of wire-wound strings.

Viewers may think they know exactly where things are going, but the climax comes as a genuine shock. Erwa takes a risk with a last-minute – indeed, last-second – surprise that throws everything up in the air again. Overall HomeSick is a sure-footed, satisfying performance and that rarity, a German genre exercise that could score internationally. 

Production company: Mojo: Pictures

International sales: Wide Management, infos@widemanagement.com

Producer: Jakob M. Erwa

Screenplay: Jakob M. Erwa

Cinematography: Christian Trieloff

Editor: Wiebke Henrich

Production designer: Stefanie Übelhör

Music Christofer Frank

Main cast Esther Maria Pietsch, Matthias Lier, Tatja Seibt, Hermann Beyer