The theme of urban alienation as epitomised by folks isolated inside their own apartments is more or less owned by Roman Polanski, whose loose trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant) is unavoidably evoked by this German feature from writer-director Jakob M. Erwa. Jessi (Esther Maria Pietsch), an intense cellist who is preparing to represent her country in a prestigious international competition, and her partner Lorenz (Matthias Lier), an easygoing physiotherapist, move into a roomy Berlin flat they can only afford thanks to a subsidy from Jessi’s jocular, viciously undermining father (Lutz Blochberger), the kind of parent who can reduce his daughter to wordless sobs with only a few offhand comments about unpainted walls and his tax money supporting her cultural achievements.
On their first night in the place, the young folks play loud music, which prompts a polite complaint from elderly upstairs neighbour Frau Domweber (Tatja Seibt) who announces that she’s the unofficial custodian of the building. The old lady gives Jessi a hideous angel statue as a moving-in gift and the couple bring home a kitten called Pikachu – if you guess that neither of these is getting through the picture in one piece, you’re probably familiar with the slow burn of the neighbour-from-hell sub-genre, though Erwa keeps things ambiguous well after Polanski, for one, would have escalated into full-on nightmare. Alone in the flat all day, practicing on her silent cello, Jessi senses that the Domwebers are spying on her … and that they are responsible for a series of irritations, ranging from buzzed doorbells to a pile of shit on the doormat (a nod to The Tenant). She at least takes a photo of the crap, but most of the later persecutions are of the sort designed not to be noticed by the amiably useless Lorenz and make the nerves-stretched heroine seem even crazier than she really is.
About half-way through, with Pikachu missing, Erwa stages a creepy trail of blood subjective camera shot that turns out to be a dream – a trick that comes from a different, more standard jump shock horror movie playbook. The dream is filmed in the same manner as the rest of the film, which casts doubt on how much of what we subsequently see actually happens – including a nasty prank whereby undertakers arrive at the flat with a coffin and orders to take away Jessi’s corpse and a long dinner party which introduces Herr Domweber (Hermann Beyer), who is meticulously dull about his coffee-making and an antique pistol of more or less exactly the same vintage as that famous gun Chekhov talks about. Pietsch is excellent as an unshowy paranoid, delaying the obvious crackup scene – in which all sorts of hitherto-unseen neighbours poke their noses around doors to witness her meltdown – until late in the film. It might be a problem that so much of the film probably doesn’t happen, which excuses some of the more far-fetched stretches – one major character may actually only be Jessi’s imaginary version – but also means we tend to be on the outside watching her collapse rather than fully involved in her inner world. Nevertheless, this has a queasy conviction that sticks in the mind – and Pietsch is interesting as a neurotic who seems overly controlled rather than jittery while Seibt steals scenes as the slyly hostile neighbour.