It’s unclear what first-time director Sonja Maria Kröner is trying to achieve with her family drama The Garden, which feels both humanistic and alienating at once.
Set in the German countryside during the 1970s, the film sees three generations coming together at the family cottage following the death of the matriarch. There’s the usual bickering over what to do with the estate, particularly the recently deceased’s prized garden. Love is lost, loved is gained, but things mostly stay the same.
It’s hard not to question some directorial choices, and intentional as they may or may not have been. For example Kröner seems to favour shooting characters from behind, preferring to shoot the back of her actor’s heads rather than their faces, even when introducing them. It’s a large family, several of whom share some physical traits, and this doesn’t make it any easier to keep track of who’s who. The country setting also makes it easy to forget that this is meant to be a period piece. There’s no discerning reason to set it in the 70s, unless there’s some kind of cultural significance there that can’t be translated in subtitles. It’s also left ambiguous exactly how much time the family is spending together at this cottage. At first one assumes it will be a weekend or maximum a week, but a character sweeping leaves in a later scene suggests the passing of the entire summer. If that’s the case it’s no wonder the family gets under one another’s skin, that’s a long time for any extended family to spend together.
Don’t get me wrong, The Garden has many redeeming qualities, they just never seem to come together. There are many beautiful shots of the property which creates a nice colour palette of earth tones complemented by all the blonde hair, but these only look nice in the shade. Almost anytime a character is in the sun, they appear too blown out. There’s also some interesting subplots external to the family that the film often returns to, like a creepy neighbour, a bee infestation, and a kidnapper on the loose, however none of these story elements seem to pay off in any significant way. The lives of the children and the grandparents are touched upon in interesting ways, but the parents are far less interesting.
The Garden shows promise in a young director, but is unsatisfying on its own.