By Jake Watt
26th November 2020

Sandra Wollner's science fiction film 'The Trouble with Being Born' has the dubious distinction of winning the Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, being selected by the Melbourne International Film Festival, then abruptly removed from its virtual program following criticisms by psychologists over its implied depiction of an android child having sex with its human "father". Since then, it's been picked back up by multiple Australian film festivals, as well as by boutique film distributor Potential Films for a broader theatrical release.

MIFF's decision to dump the film on the grounds that it might make weirdos drop their pants at home (I assume any pants-dropping at cinemas would have been policed by MIFF's volunteer staff) was criticised by some academics and film critics - including David Stratton - as censorship. To be honest, MIFF's rationale is still somewhat baffling to me.

'The Trouble with Being Born' has a slim story, with only the faintest traces of exposition and conventional character development. A middle-aged man, Georg (Dominik Warta), lives in an isolated modernist house with a ten-year-old girl called Elli (a 10-year-old actress under the stage name Lena Watson). The girl is an android, programmed to have certain memories of Georg's runaway daughter (Jana McKinnon) - of swimming, running through the woods, and the scent of Georg's sunscreen and cigarettes - but she cannot add context to these memories.

Initially, the man is tender and fatherly towards her. But the longer we spend with the pair within the sustained, artificial, inanimate placidity of the house in the woods, the more obvious it becomes that there is a queasy intimacy between them. There's nothing erotic about it, it's just quietly unsettling. Lingering hugs and skimpy clothing make Elli into a sort of robo-'Lolita' figure - there's even a sunbathing-on-the-lawn scene that vaguely recalls Adrian Lyne's adaptation. In the most repellent moment, the father removes Elli's tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter like a household appliance.


The scenes in which the android Elli is depicted nude were accomplished using computer-generated imagery. Watson also wore a silicone mask and wig, which served to both conceal her identity and help her resemble another character who appears later in the film. Her overall appearance isn't too dissimilar to Christiane in Georges Franju's 'Eyes Without a Face'.

Later in the film, ownership of Elli is handed over to an elderly woman (Ingrid Burkhard, 'Toni Erdmann'), and with a few tweaks, Elli becomes Emil, a replica of the woman's brother who died tragically young some 60 years earlier. Perhaps it's a metaphor for the malleability of memory. Elli's new purpose as Emil is a reversal of the old purpose - first built to serve an older man's deviancy, now Emil is a surrogate for an old woman's near-lifelong grief.

It would be a shame to let the more contentious elements of the story end up obscuring Wollner's intelligent ideas that mark 'The Trouble with Being Born' out as a dark successor to Alex Garland's 'Ex Machina' and Steven Spielberg's singular 'A.I. Artificial Intelligence'. This seems like as good a place as any to highly recommend the movie 'Majorie Prime,' a character-based sci-fi(ish) movie about memories; 'Coherence,' which is a sci-fi movie set mostly at a dinner party; and 'Primer', the famously abstruse indie film about time travel. All three are excellent and subtle, where the awe is more in the story and the implications of technology over the bombastic CGI stuff.

Technology can be a beautiful thing: it connects us to our family across the country, it exposes us to captivating stories, both real and fictional. But it also has its downsides. Critics claim adopting new technologies is a sort of Faustian bargain - a deal with the devil. In order to have that tractor, you must slave away to pay for it, and you must be prepared for it to break down, and to fix it. Some microwave users can't cook anything that isn't "prepared" - at best, such people are good at "warming".

A possible reading of 'The Trouble with Being Born' is that, not only is technology addictive, it can keep people detached from reality and stuck in endless, ouroboros-like loops of their own self-serving desires and destructive memories.

We're all a little guilty of indulging in our devices too often, even if it's checking our texts one too many times while we're out to dinner or just wasting precious minutes dissecting our old flame's new romance. I think we all realise we can become a slave to our screens; for some, a smartphone is the electronic equivalent of heroin. Videogames, pornography and social media can be addictive.

A possible reading of 'The Trouble with Being Born' is that, not only is technology addictive, it can keep people detached from reality and stuck in endless, ouroboros-like loops of their own self-serving desires and destructive memories.

Georg is locked into a spiral of paedophilic behaviour with the robot - until he loses her, just like he lost his real daughter - and he will always be wandering through the dark, looking for her. The old woman feels guilt over the death of her brother, caused by a childish squabble, but is doomed to repeat her mistakes even after getting a second chance with his cybernetic doppelgänger. Elli/Emil could be an avatar of redemption, but acts as a catalyst for its owner's downfall - too many ghosts haunt the robot's programming, causing it to repeat the fateful movements of the children it was designed to imitate.

Director of Photography Timm Kröger helps keep things uncomfortable - his long takes and muted cinematography create an enigmatic, mysterious, portentous atmosphere. Peter Kutin and co-composer David Schweighar's sonic texture plays a crucial role in the disorientation; the complex sound design, coupled with a superbly sinister score, suggests a world of natural sounds being received and vaguely distorted by inhuman ears.

Deeply unsettling and thematically rich, Sandra Wollner's film is, most of all, thought-provoking. If you can look past the controversy, 'The Trouble with Being Born' will haunt you.

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