Berlinale 2024 Review: Tilman Singer’s “Cuckoo” Shakes Things Up

Tilman Singer is going to know if he went to the wrong Halloween party for the rest of his days. The writer/director has created something instantly iconic, along with his star Hunter Schaefer and costume designer Frauke Firl, in Gretchen, the bruised and battered heroine of “Cuckoo,” that’s bound to be a staple of the season for years to come when the attire – a head bandage, an arm brace over a baby blue satin jacket and a white tank top – are easy to replicate, but popular when the film is one of a kind.

It’s nearly impossible to articulate the threats that Gretchen faces in Singer’s second feature, except to say they’re everywhere from the moment you meet her. There isn’t room for the 17-year-old to ride along with the rest of her family as they make their way into the Bavarian Alps where her father Luis (Marton Csokas) and stepmother Beth (Jessica Henwick) have been drawn back by a resort owner (Dan Stevens) to flesh out redevelopment plans for the property eight years after spending their honeymoon there. Gretchen remembers it well when it marked her essential exodus from the family, replaced quite explicitly now by her baby step-sister Alma (Mila Lieu) in the backseat of the car, forcing her to ride up with strangers and curiously, upon arrival, Stevens’ gregarious Mr. Konig is the only one who doesn’t want her feeling left out, offering her a job at the front desk to keep her entertained and even make a few bucks while her parents draw up blueprints.

Naturally, the clientele is slightly sketchy, but more so is their behavior and that of the owner, who doesn’t want Gretchen working night shifts for ambiguous reasons. Yet seeing guests randomly puking their guts out in her time at reception raises an eyebrow and Mr. Konig, as played by Stevens (who is making a strong case for the unpredictable actor of his generation), does nothing to convince her that something fishy isn’t going on as he overenunciates the “ch” in her name and plays the lute to summon woodland creatures out into the open. He definitely is nuts, and at points, you have to wonder if Singer is too, seemingly in touch with the same madness that Dario Argento communed with in “Suspiria” or Andrzej Żuławski in “Possession” as he follows Gretchen around and starts to question her surroundings as much as the people that brought her there. There is enough of a traditional narrative to take the film to places unknown, with Gretchen less intimidated by the supernatural than all that she’s already survived within her family and those who enjoyed Singer’s deeply unnerving debut “Luz” will be delighted to see the return of the world weary Jan Bluthardt as Henry, an investigator who joins her on her quest when his wife disappeared at the resort.

They will also be thrilled by the return of Singer’s seizure-cam and split diopter effects, deployed with the love and respect for those that developed the techniques over the years while putting his own twist on them to make them even more unsettling. You’ll know if you’re in or you’re out on “Cuckoo” from its very first scene, played out in the filmmaker’s native tongue in German sans subtitles where a young woman is caught in the grip of a some manic episode and only later does one think it could be caused as much by the bickering of her parents downstairs as some inexplicable force and in making unspeakable horrors human, Singer seems to be working on another level.

“Cuckoo” will open in theaters on May 3rd. It will next play at SXSW in Austin on March 14th at 9:30 pm at the Paramount.

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