Four Windows
(Vier Fenster)

Waterbearer Films,

Christian Moris Muller

Margarita Broich, Frank Droese, Thorsten Merten, Theresa Scholze

Unrated, 80 minutes

A Day In The Life
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, August 2009

Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina by announcing that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In German director Christian Moris Muller's first film, 2006's Four Windows (Vier Fenster), we are voyeurs watching a typical normal family and learning that there are secrets we would never suspect beneath the surface. Unhappy in its own way? That's an understatement.

These people are the family that lives upstairs, or next door, and often goes un-noticed by everyone around them. This family is so anonymous that we never even learn their names. Instead, we become more than intimate with them in other ways as we watch the same day through each of their eyes. The teen-aged son (Frank Droese), instead of taking an exam, is having sex with a man in an adult video arcade. The daughter (Theresa Scholze) has a fiancee, yet spends her afternoon commute by asking a few old men on the subway to "fuck" her. Mother and Father (Margarita Broich and Thorsten Merten) don't appear to have sex anymore - or speak much either for that matter. Dad seems too close to his daughter, and looks more troubled than he should be when he learns that she might be pregnant. Dad is never home, and Mom tries to seduce the janitor. Following this delirious day, the family sits down to dinner in a restaurant to take a stab at normalcy.
Four Windows is like a play in four acts. A family member's story is told, they meet at dinner, and then it starts all over again that same morning with a different person. Nothing and everything happens. We learn bits and pieces about them in each successive episode. Nothing is spoon-fed to the audience, and you have to play close attention. I'll be honest, I had to watch this twice to figure out some of what that was going on and I'm still confused. But it's a fascinating journey because of the way that the story is told and, especially, because of the way it's been filmed.

It isn't often that I get to gush about a queer independent film's camerawork and the cinematography in Four Windows is nothing short of brilliant. The man behind the lens is Jurgen Jurges, a legend in German cinema who has shot films for Wim Wenders and Fassbinder. His collaboration with director Muller is a match made in cinematic heaven. Entire scenes are often allowed to play out in a single take. The camera is usually static, it is also sometimes in perpetual motion. Traditional cutting methods rarely apply here. The camera tracks in front of the son as he promenades through a crowded mall in a shot lasting several minutes. The camera follows characters in, and then out of, an apartment and then down and around several flights of stairs, and finally out into the streets for many blocks, without a cut. When stationary, the camera is focused on an image composed with a painter's eyes. Characters are shot through doorways, framed in hallways, sometimes hidden behind walls. The length of the shots allows for the actors to play out the naked emotion of a scene in real time and the results are quite intense.

The malaise common to each is oddly sexual in nature. This is a film about lonely people and dangerous sensuality in which all eroticism and joy has been drained. The son's anonymous sex partner is only interested in fucking and refuses to return a kiss. The sister throws herself at an old man on the subway; when he walks away, she picks another. There are suggestions of incest, perhaps real, perhaps imagined, on the part of both parents. During a long and uncomfortable scene inside an elevator, the mother exposes her breasts and asks her son if she is still beautiful.
This is an eccentric film, but sometimes a work of art's pleasures (be it a book, a film, a painting) reveal themselves through an artist's unique style. If one were to strip all the marvelous wordplay from James Joyce's Ulysses, for example, there wouldn't be very much of a story left. The same would be true, I suspect, with Four Windows. A more traditional approach might have rendered it forgettable, instead this is a formidable first feature. Its use of long takes throughout make for a unique filmgoing exprience. The technical demands on both the actors and the cameraman are not your standard moviehouse faire and its successful execution is a tribute to its director. While certainly not a date flick or a popcorn movie, Four Windows stands head and shoulders above the pack.