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The Berlinale Blog: Of pools and people

Ah, the swimming pool: the mixed signal trope returns, with stealth not splash, in two of this year’s Berlinale films. Eve Lucas joined audiences keen to abandon Berlin’s February slush for warmer waters – and found some thoughtful faces.

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“Swimming Pool”

Both a divider and a unifier, water (especially when consigned to pools) is rarely just water – in film at least (QED last year’s Tabu). Literally worlds apart, The Swimming Pool (La Piscina) from Cuba’s Carlos M. Quintela and Germany’s Everyday Objects (Halbschatten) by Nicolas Wackerbarth provide very different explorations of the pool’s interpretational versatility.  

In Quintela’s film, it begins as an austere public space in Cuba, in which four disabled youngsters (played – finally – by disabled actors) meet for a day of lessons with a taciturn young teacher. Maintaining the classic unity of time, space and action, Quintela’s film initially proposes the pool as neutral ground on (and in) which affection and aggression are allowed to play out between this quartet of youngsters and their coach – before revealing it as a social arena, contested by the strong-limbed swimmers with whom it is shared.

Quintela’s supplements his exposition of this particular them-and-us situation through effective camera work. Cinematographic long takes filmed from a distance watch the kids dispassionately as their voices carry over the water in preludes to some adolescent spat. A close-up draws us into a moment of tension or connectivity, followed again by the imposition of distance—miming the processes of desired proximity and enforced alienation that often mark disabled lives.

But beyond the immediacy of this foreground action, the long shots serve a more generic purpose. By spanning the umbrella of disability over the everyman nostalgia for days spent poolside, Quintela re-frames a common experience to eerie effect, deepening it both in terms of individual poignancy and collective relevance.

Wackerbarth’s Everyday Objects also concerns itself with processes of alienation that play out at the pool of Romuald’s vacation house in the South of France. It’s where we see his girlfriend Merle relaxing in stereotypical anticipation of summer’s languor and Romuald’s imminent arrival. But as with Quintela, confidence in the pool as a signifier of innocent fun is short-lived. As Romuald repeatedly delays his appearance, Merle finds herself taking up the slack of his absence and trying to deal with the disappointments and expectations of his two children entrusted, unasked, to her care.

Just as water reflects – and rejects – whatever shadows are thrown onto it, the pool comes to signify not only Merle’s reticence but also the battlefield of non-communication staged in the adolescent pool-parties that take place around it. In a film that deals essentially with invisible processes, Wackerbarth’s pool is a thoughtfully employed metaphor for yet another blank surface signaling what appears to be elemental indifference.