Jessica Krummacher’s Totem, showing as part of the Contemporary German Cinema strand at the Cambridge Film Festival, is a muted, oblique headscratcher in which the only certainty apparent is that none of the people on screen are having much of a good time. The lead character is twenty-three year old Fiona, played by Marina Frenk, who takes up a position as live-in maid in an averagely well-off household, possibly as an escape from an unhappy situation at home. Once in situ she becomes the subject of physical and mental abuse from the middle-aged couple who have employed her, both of whom seem in dire need of some psychiatric help (witness the pair of creepy baby dolls the mother insists on treating as her own offspring, the wooden alsatian dog replica in the front room and the fact that they seem not remotely bothered about their fifteen year old daughter associating with a boyfriend who looks twice that age). Fiona for the most part simply absorbs all this ill-treatment, though she does sullenly kick back against particularly extreme invasions of her personal boundaries.
This is all pretty depressing, though the film isn’t that tough a watch, maybe because Fiona herself is not drawn as a noticeably sympathetic character, and maybe because it is a fairly clipped and disciplined piece of film-making that stays focussed (chiefly on everybody’s misery). I was however left at the end wondering a bit what the point of it all was. But I guess it just wouldn’t be a Film Festival without a dash of cryptic European family dysfunction chucked in there somewhere.