What with strands covering Quebecois, Asian, Eastern Bloc and Latin American cinema at this year’s Santa Barbara Film Festival, western European cinema is a bit thin on the ground, so I was pleased of the chance to see a German film. Draußen am see (literally “outside at the lake”) is the debut feature of writer/director Felix Fuchssteiner and deserved winner of the Young German Cinema actress and production awards at Munich last year.

Jessika (Elisa Schlott) is a 13-year old girl whose opening voice-over statement is that families are like artificially created biotopes, liable to disintegrate if deprived of the right conditions. She and older sister Caro (Sina Tkotsch) live with their parents Ernst (Michael Lott) and Tine (Petra Kleinert) in an unnamed German town, and take weekends at their cabin at a nearby lake.

Ernst has a bit of the fantasist to him, a German Marlborough man with cowboy hat and boots, guitar and cigarette; Tine is fat and fun, an advocate of enjoying life. Ernst has a certain amount of sexual insecurity and when he loses his engineering job and Tine goes to work, the realms of his insecurity broaden; he’s hopeless at running the household and barely even tries; he subjects Jessika’s nice prospective boyfriend to a ridiculous test of manhood (Jessika’s smart enough to call it as such), and his attempts at economy are constantly undermined by carefree/careless Tine.

The parents bicker with one another under the strain and by the end reveal themselves as pretty hopeless human beings: they are not good partners and more importantly, they are not good parents, speaking thoughtlessly of the accidents from which their family was born, taking no apparent interest in the activities of their children and unwilling and unable to speak to the girls – despite reiterations that they are not children anymore – about the serious matters that come up during the course of the film.

If this realization dawns gradually, it’s not only because the increments are slight and the couple initially seem appealing, but also because we are kept close to Jessika’s viewpoint throughout, and she loves nothing more than the idea of her family unit. Sweet, smart, occasionally rather wise and almost always serene, Jessika starts to seem after a while like the most even-tempered and sensible teenager there ever was. Schlott is hugely appealing, with big blue eyes (fully or mostly lined at all times) and moments of pure unforced charm, such as a turn and a little smile as she says goodbye to the handsome new neighbour boy Tim, or gazing at her father with the unbounded love and admiration of a thirteen-year old daughter. She is full of facts about sharks, Kalahari herdsmen and the temperature in outer space, and her voice-over provides several that offer metaphorical commentary on the state of affairs.

The intimacy of the voice-over technique makes it easy to feel as though we have gotten to know this strangely perfect girl, but the depth of her inner feelings, desires and fears are held locked in pages of her diary until her behaviour takes a casually alarming turn. It doesn’t come as a complete surprise; this is one of those films that begins in medias res and then skips us back in time (without notice) until the story reaches again the point with which the film started. Often a flip device, it serves here a useful purpose: the opening montage is vague enough that we are given no concrete spoilers, but it establishes an unsettling mood as Jessika speaks down the phone that there is something at the lake that should look into. When the scene rolls around in its proper place it proves less sinister than it first appeared, but does show how far we have come from the happy barbecue-eating family that of an hour previously. The forearm scars half-forgotten make the revelation of self-harm no less shocking, but give a useful simulacrum of context; the mother’s reaction is so offhand we can only assume that this is something they have gone through before, without having to labour through backstory; her very manner is another instance of unthinking negligence and Ernst’s reaction is one of desperation verging on punishment.

Jessika may have started to seem too good to be true, but we realise now that she has been holding us and everyone else at a distance, keeping her feelings locked deep inside, and we feel suddenly rather adrift; the voiceover continues to give the impression of intimacy, although now smacks less of insight than a retreat from the immediate facts (much like her dive from the boat during an early family squabble). Unlike Caro, whom she insists read it, we are deprived of the real meat of her journal, and learn only that she is “dying on the inside” in as oblique expression of personal feeling as she can manage, in English, recited as a song lyric quotation at her grandmother’s birthday party. She turns her despair at the disintegration of the family unit back on herself, blaming herself and taking extreme action; once calmed, she returns to serenity but with an edge hardened by disillusionment. It is not for her to try to save her family, despite the fact they all look to her for answers, and her disgust is increased by the pathetic inability of her parents to save it themselves.

Schlott’s performance is exemplary, with no trace of artifice, and it is impossible not be a little smitten by her. It is satisfying to realise that her character has depth beyond the scope of the film, but a little alienating to find that she has been keeping us too at arm’s length; she remains something of a mystery even to the end, and we have no grounds for speculating on how her life will progress. This is not a searing microscopic dissection of how human relationships fall apart (for such an example in recent German cinema see the spot-on Alle Anderen) and some of the notes it hits are a little obvious (I would say also in passing that some of the DV footage looks distractingly ghastly) but the close-up viewpoint and the thrust and pacing of the narrative, along with the implied richness of large areas of unexplored character make it a film in which one can live and breathe, one which holds back from being devastating in favour of the quietly affecting.

Rating: 8.32/10