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  • Carson Cook

Sundance Review: Human Factors

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I’m typically a sucker for any movie with the basic premise of Ronny Trocker’s Human Factors: a well-off, seemingly idyllic family slowly disintegrates under the weight of external events and internal tensions. From Caché to Revolutionary Road to last year’s The Nest, I can’t get enough of minorly apocalyptic suburban malaise, and Human Factors initially looks to deliver more of the same. We meet Nina (Sabine Timoteo) and Jan (Mark Waschke), along with their adolescent children Emma (Jule Hermann) and Max (Wanja Valentin Kube), as they’re in the beginnings of what should be a nice vacation in a lovely countryside home. But just as quick as their trip has begun, their relaxation is interrupted by a daylight break-in by unknown intruders. We don’t see the perpetrators — at least, not at first — or the immediate aftermath; we’re suddenly whisked back to Nina and Jan’s real life and left to wonder what to make of it all.

Herein lies Human Factors’ fatal flaw, an attempt to be just a touch too formalistically clever for its own good. Of course, a film doesn’t need to hold its audience’s hand, but Trocker’s attempt at a Rashomon-esque structure ends up being needlessly confusing as we jump back and forth between the present and the days surrounding the break-in, seeing the incident and the context from a different family member’s perspective each time. The potential is there for something rich, with a riff on the themes of Force Majeure and a throughline concerning Nina and Jan’s public relations firm and their willingness to take on an unpopular political client theoretically making for meaty material, but as we keep returning over and over again to the scene of the crime the whole affair just becomes ever more tedious.

Which is really a shame, since Human Factors fits in nicely with the general aesthetics of the genre. Timoteo and Waschke are satisfyingly reserved, the production design is appropriately chilly, and Klemens Hufnagl's camerawork is solidly workmanlike, smoothly following individual characters around to varying degrees of uneasy effect. But by the final return to the vacation home, where apparently Max’s pet rat deserves its own POV sequence, I found myself realizing I simply didn’t care about this family’s issues — the worst possible scenario for this sort of film. If your audience can’t muster up either empathy or a sense of schadenfreude, then what did all that fighting and falling apart achieve? Human Factors may have a lot going on, but unfortunately just doesn’t have enough humanity to tie it all together in the end.


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