Crystal blue waters on which sailboats glide; cooling, hushed evenings for night drives; creaking floorboards of vacation retreats: “Summer ’04” uses familiar elements from seasonal coming-of-age and romance films and twists them to sinister, damaging effect. Director Stefan Krohmer and screenwriter Daniel Nocke, both veterans of German TV and collaborators on Krohmer’s 2003 debut, “They’ve Got Knut,” set out on a seemingly standard course when adolescent Nils (Lucas Kotaranin) takes along younger girlfriend Livia (Svea Lohde) on a trip with his parents, Andre (Peter Davor) and Mirjam (Martina Gedeck), to the Baltic coast, where the family owns a summer house.
Andre and Mirjam possess a liberal attitude when it comes to their son’s burgeoning sexuality and practically encourage his summer love, but tension arrives in the form of Bill (Robert Seeliger), the kind of rugged, laconic mid-thirties man for whom twelve-year-old girls develop immediate crushes. Nils doesn’t mind Bill’s intrusion, but as Livia starts spending more time with him Mirjam feels the need to voice concern. Mirjam—vivacious, voluptuous, and probably a step faster than her kind but bland husband, for whom she still has a fresh attraction—also immediately takes to Bill.
Krohmer goes for neither the lurid nor the comfortable in exploring the machinations of desire and their resulting catastrophes. Even those catastrophes defy the usual cinematic consequences of sexual indiscretion because Krohmer refuses to play finger-wagging moralist. Bill at first resists Mirjam’s advances, but then the two conduct an affair without apology or guilt (the short but memorable sex scenes, like the film as a whole, are filmed with a detached but acute observation, heightening the matter-of-fact eroticism), until Bill can no longer hold back his feelings for Livia. It’s when the affair ends and Mirjam attempts to warn Livia of Bill’s potential approaches that “Summer ’04” hands down a brutally realistic accident that is at once unfairly arbitrary and charged with meaning, the sort that contains ethical repercussions for everyone involved.
“Summer ’04” will surely be compared to the films of Claude Chabrol as its slow, insidious machinations build to a cynical ending implicating false bourgeois propriety, but it’s also more than that. There’s something haunting and–to use a word no longer in fashion–existential in Krohmer’s patient, unrushed delivery, in his ability to trust his soundtrack-less images and create lived-in conditions for understated, complex performances. “Summer ’04” is as real as life, from the natural moonlight that illuminates Mirjam’s ominous first drive out to Bill’s self-renovated estate to the unequal sexual maturity that separates Nils and Livia and draws the latter to more daring possibilities. And like life, “Summer ’04” provides no implicit judgment or fail-safe reassurance in response to the unsettling confusion of its characters, who must deal with reality very much on their own.