“Animals don’t kill themselves”
Discovering that screenwriter Jörg Kalt committed suicide before bringing his script Tiere [Animals] to life adds a lot of context to how one deciphers Greg Zglinski‘s film. The director had read it the year before Kalt’s death, lauding it while on a Zurich Film Foundation committee in the hopes of helping secure its finances. Now a decade later, Zglinski’s adaptation graces cinema screens with a perplexing puzzle of emotion and time. We watch its stunningly non-linear plot move back and forth between characters real and imagined, their connections to each other simultaneously tangible and impossible. It’s a story flittering between life and death with complexly conflicted souls lost within their own troubles and insecurities to the point of rendering human interaction, trust, and love a monumental struggle.
It’s by no means to be interpreted as a plea for help, but you must project a bit of that on it due to the circumstances. There’s a real sense of pain and isolation at work both by those characters stepping away from their vows and those being stepped on. You can’t watch without seeing the fear that drives everything: fear of being caught, of losing love, of failure, and of dying before knowing whether things will work out. Just watch the opening scene’s crosscutting between two places and two people at once. This is where we meet the easy charisma of Nick (Philipp Hochmair) soaking in the vindication of customers and the desperation of Anna (Birgit Minichmayr) attempting to find words holding the potential of losing everything.
Both are caught beneath façades of whom they want to be—adored and empowered respectively. Reality, however, reveals neither is true as a wedge is driven between them. This is why he backs away when she gets too close and why she stops approaching. Nick therefore retreats into the arms of another (their upstairs neighbor Andrea) while Anna buries herself in work (children’s books starring a talking cat). They each know something is broken and yet neither will begin the conversation necessary to try and fix it. The hope is that six months away in the country can be their opportunity. But just as distance from distractions can offer a chance at moving closer, it also risks proving why those distractions were the only things keeping them sane.
This vacation ignites a fracturing of cognition as three disparate realities are born. The catalyst is an accident wherein Nick and Anna’s car plows through a sheep caught motionless in the road. Nothing makes sense afterwards as time becomes rendered untrustworthy and paranoia exponentially increased. Everything that follows could very well be a dream with events like a bird flying into a kitchen wall being erased and multiple instances of rage-fueled murder sharply flipped into the jolt from sleep of both victim and predator—sometimes at once. We watch as Anna moves through one day that’s actually pieces of two weeks merged together. Nick parallelly glides through them working, playing, and seducing. And their house sitter Mischa (Mona Petri) discovers hidden mysteries left in their absence.
But this aberrant behavior isn’t simply an effect of the accident. We may not have noticed at the time, but strange events occurred beforehand too. There’s the woman falling from her window only to find the camera pan down towards a harmless sidewalk before panning back up to Nick on his phone a floor below. There’s the odd notion of a room within Nick and Anna’s home that’s dismissed as though it doesn’t exist when Mischa asks where it leads. Add the almost comical pratfall of Mischa cracking her skull on a skateboard in plain sight and the introduction of seemingly harmless supporting characters (Mehdi Nebbou‘s Dr. Tarek and Michael Ostrowski‘s florist Harald) that prove to be much more and you realize nothing has ever been quite “normal.”
Perhaps that’s intentional and the accident isn’t real. Perhaps those innocuous moments at the beginning of Nick walking through his restaurant’s dining room and Anna staring in the mirror rehearsing her speech about his affair are all that truly is. Honestly, taking what happens afterwards at face value is just as confounding as pretending none of it occurred. What Kalt put to page and Zglinski to film is the psychological turbulence raging within as this couple’s world approaches a moment that will define their future. It’s a manifestation of chaos, tragedy, and the slightest glimmers of hope quickly rejected once the sun rises (or doesn’t) the next morning. We’re witnessing the dissolution of a relationship in tandem with their very identities—identities once intrinsically linked to the other.
The hope is that their retreat will mend wounds by sleeping in the same bed, enjoying car trip games, and laughing like they haven’t in some time. He will give her a daisy and she will return the favor with a smile. But then comes a nightmare of non-contextual violence to sour the mood. Next we see how out of synch they are as time passes at different speeds for both. And finally night and day literally reverse as though Nick and Anna have separated onto different planes of existence. Even as they come together for a walk it’s revealed that they’re further apart than ever. And the same can be said about Mischa back home, her memory called into question as well as her very name.
Zglinski excels at disorienting us with red herrings and repetitions that have the effect of a knot tightening to bring its many curves together in one place of overlapped coexistence. He shields faces so that their hair or fingers corroborate their identities with assumptions made by other characters. And the way in which he seamlessly shifts perspective in a single scene will throw you for a loop until what we see and what we hear conflict not in presentation but veracity. The addition of a talking cat only helps to distort more as Anna’s work—a new book she hasn’t even begun—permeates her life. Each thread starts simultaneously, their ends perhaps impossible until we’re able to burst through the locked doors trapping us within their nightmare.
The one constant is a theme of loss. Couple it with the quote that “animals don’t kill themselves” and Kalt’s suicide looms large above it all. We watch the subconscious destroy so much until there’s just one survivor left standing distraught and hopeless. The characters onscreen may not kill themselves in the literal sense of the word, but they do so figuratively throughout as a means of escaping the prisons they’ve formed from the lies they tell themselves and those they love. To do what Nick is doing to Anna—what Andrea did to Harald and what Mischa may do to Tarek—is to murder a piece of their souls. And when their victims discover what’s happened, their hearts stop from the betrayal. Sometimes that pain is death.
courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival