Above: Haas (Merel van Houts) has an uneasy moment of earnest affection in her tumultuous family.
Why is it so continually surprising when a film tells a story as old as time itself, but does so in such a way as to make the material really move us again? Nanouk Leopold’s film Wolfsbergen is an excellent example. Konraad (Piet Kamerman), an elderly great-grandfather, writes to his family about his intention of killing himself and joining his deceased wife, a letter that raises questions and emotions that will push all descendants of his family to the breaking point. His daughter (Catherine ten Bruggencate), away from home getting plastic surgery, doesn’t know how to handle his choice, and distances herself from her husband Ernst (Jan Decleir). Sabine (Tamar van den Dop), one of their daughters, only dives more head-on into the dissatisfaction and depression she feels about her life married to Onno (Fedja van Huêt). The other daughter, Eva (Karina Smulders) already seems unable to stop crying publicly, and the Sabine and Onno’s daughter Haas (Merel van Houts), in the face of her bickering parents, is already exhibits signs of neurosis that plagues the female members of Konraad’s family. And so we have a typical story of a very well-to-do bourgeois family whose relationships are clearly already in the process of caving in, a disaster given an unexpected catalyst in Konraad’s death wish.
Yet while the contents and progression of Leopold’s Wolfsbergen seem nothing particularly worthy of attention, it is in its cast—exemplary in their ambiguousness; there are almost no caricatures here—and most especially in the direction of the film that the scenario gains its weight, its solemnity, its emotion. With her talented director of photography Richard Van Oosterhout, Leopold envisions the story of the generations of this single family from fixed tripod shots in wide, still Cinemascope, grain dancing across monochrome gray/brown compositions, with startling cuts to black separating sequences. While this style of summation and illustration—often one shot, one illustration, here is Sabine unhappy in her home, here is Ernst frustrated at work—Leopold’s careful eye make these illustrations more like segmented, individual moments of a whole family pieced off into their own constricted worries than any kind of pat storytelling style.
The camera does not isolate the family members from one another, but instead elucidates how contained and limited their lives are, in their proximity and their seemingly separated—but really completely entwined and interrelated—pain. Ironically, the size of the scope compositions make the world seem even smaller: when Onno eventually cheats on Sabine, it is only natural in this limited world of the family that he would pick her sister Eva. Again, the revelations are nothing new—kind husbands lacking comprehension, the abstractly unhappy housewives, the family members and children on the periphery of these disasters who themselves absorb all the wrong kinds of lessons and pain—but how often are the stories in cinema unique? One of the most magical elements of the camera is its ability to grant the right user the ability to transform the everyday into something special. Usually this means the quotidian elements of life, but sometimes it can even mean wresting from banal material something utterly specific and special. When Eva cries in her seat on a winding tram ride, or Sabine comes home and dismisses her grandfather’s letter as something she cannot deal with right now, the director and her cast give each conventional moment a ring of truth and specificity, something unique to a moment, a character, and, perhaps most especially considering Van Oosterhout’s photography, a limited point of space. It is Leopold’s considerate vision that grants clichés and conventions the gravity of real life, the solemnity of lives of pain.