★★★☆☆

When is a house not a home? And how thinly stretched are the ties that bind together the people within their walls? Ronny Trocker’s Human Factors, a patient, brooding drama, peers through cracks in the brickwork of a family unit whose growing divisions may be beyond repair.

“It was a good idea to come here,” says Jan (Mark Waschke) to wife Nina (Sabine Timeteo) as they unpack groceries upon arriving at their seaside second home. The reasons for this weekend escape from their busy, ad agency lives in Germany will be made clear in a narrative that shifts frequently through time, space and point of view. But prior to this house being filled with light and visitors, Klemens Hufnagl’s stealthy, malevolent camera has already roamed the halls with lurking intent.

Aside from the high screech of seagulls and the distant rumble of the sea, there’s very little score to contend with in the opening stages, and the dank, rain-swept, autumnal colours of the Belgian coastline reflect the dark and foreboding interior and altogether unwelcoming welcome to this place. It is a disquieting opening sequence and just as we have invaded the privacy of this family’s space without their knowledge or consent prior to their arrival, a suspected break-in occurs whilst Jan is out buying more supplies.

Nina is the only character to witness, or appear to witness, this intrusion first hand; a viewer does not. Later versions of this same event will show that Max (Wanja Valentin Kube) was upstairs cleaning the cage of his pet rat, Zorro, at the time, and his elder sister Emma (Jule Hermann) was secretly nicking one of her mum’s cigarettes in a locked bathroom. Growing doubt as to what was seen is one of a few elephants in the room, but it sets Nina on edge from the off. Doors are locked and bolted and an abrupt cut takes us to a canal where Jan is rowing.

Jilted out of an uncomfortable situation to one of rhythmic rigour, whether this is a flashback or forward, and where we find ourselves is initially unclear. In both his writing of Human Factors‘ script and its direction, Trocker skips between – and frequently over – stepping stones in the non-linear timeline. Blanks will be filled in as the fluid narrative is fleshed out, but the fact he leaves some of the heavy lifting to us invites, necessitates even, a higher level of engagement. It is an effective and well employed technique. And though the awarding of a lucrative government contract – to be the ideas team for a candidate’s electoral campaign – is the principal reason for a fissure driven between man and wife, unspoken discontent bubbles to the surface.

For though Jan is German, Nina French and their children entirely bilingual, nothing is lost in translation here, as sentences often begin in one language and finish in another. However, it is is an ever-growing inability to truly communicate that conflict arises. Hufnagl’s frequent long takes leave nowhere to hide, and in a key restaurant scene quicker edits, and characters framed individually, demonstrate further familial fracturing. Human Factors’ construction shows us elements of this story from each of the four character’s perspectives, but it becomes clear that Jan and Nina are so rapt in their personal and professional problems that they, as parents, have forgotten to listen to their children and to really hear one another.

The bracingly white walls and interior of a new, spacious apartment visited in the closing moments provide hope for a new start, a blank canvas, but who will be living there? A challenging and very well considered inspection of familial disintegration, featuring strong performances, Human Factors is a solid entry in the Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Competition.

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival takes place between the 28 January to 3 February. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63