From the Newsletter: Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble With Being Born

Editor’s Note: Prostasia is reprinting useful material from our newsletter for blog readers. This review first ran in May 2020. To keep up to date on everything happening at Prostasia, you can sign up for the newsletter here.

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The Trouble With Being Born is an atmospheric German language art film about a ten year old girl named Elli, who is soon revealed to be not a girl at all, but an android. Partly inspired by public debates over the possibility of “childlike” sex robots, the film thankfully doesn’t spend much screentime on this aspect of Elli’s function, although most of the film’s critics have fixated on it. 

Since it isn’t integral to the plot, why did the filmmaker, Austrian Sandra Wollner, suggest that the android was used as a sex toy by one of its owners at all? Perhaps because the viewer’s instinctive empathy for the robot begins to feel increasingly absurd as its lack of humanity becomes more apparent. The shape of the android encourages the viewer to interpret what happens to it in the familiar terms of human relationships, and to recognize familiar filmic motifs in the events depicted on screen. But as much as Elli attempts to mimic a human girl, the cracks in this facade and the shortcomings of her programming soon become apparent, requiring us to reevaluate our assumptions. (Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to read spoilers about the plot of the film.)

Like much else in the film, the extent of Elli’s self-awareness remains open to interpretation. For example on two occasions, once for each of her owners, Elli is shown sobbing in her bed. But is this a real emotional reaction, a behavior that has been programmed into her, or one that she has developed through machine learning aimed at provoking a parental response? Her declarations to her first owner (her “Papa”), such as “I’m always going to be with you,” and “I miss you all the time,” are reminiscent of the phrases that a plastic doll would emit when its string is pulled. Although there are moments when her behaviors seem very naturalistic, the mask falls at other moments, such as when she passively observes her second owner bleeding to death.

Despite the opacity of Elli’s thought processes, we can observe her getting stuck in the same loops of speech and behavior. The identity that she has constructed for herself from the scraps of memories shared by her owners both defines her, but also constrains her. At times, the non-linear telling of the narrative leaves the viewer as confused as we imagine Elli must be. At one point, Elli reenacts a scene from the life of Papa’s real daughter that she had incorporated into her own memories. She ends up getting lost just as (we assume) the real daughter had, and is picked up by a motorist who passes her into the custody of an old woman, her second owner. Required to adopt a new identity as Emil, the woman’s long-dead brother, the android attempts to weave the memories and identities of both children into its new persona, with eerie results.

The Trouble With Being Born is less a story about android psychology than about human psychology. What its two owners have in common is that neither is able to fully let go of the past, and both come to rely on the android as a companion and as a crutch—but it takes on a more fleshed out human shape in their own minds than it does as a true character in the narrative.

The film contains a couple of very short scenes in which the android appears nude in Papa’s presence. For these scenes, the filmmaker took special efforts to shield the child actor from harm. On set, she wore a bikini which was digitally removed. Throughout the movie she also wore a mask and wig, and used a stage name. Although these measures go beyond the safeguards previously taken with child actors in similar scenes, the film’s release has still caused controversy, including threats of doxxing and physical harm directed towards the director. The expanding grey area around the depiction of child nudity and sexuality also makes it likely that these scenes will be deleted if the film is ever shown in foreign markets.

But The Trouble With Being Born stands alone without these short scenes. It isn’t a film about sex with androids. It’s a visually stark and evocative film about how humans cling to their past, and seek to mould those around them into comforting shapes that can deaden the pain of past trauma. See The Trouble With Being Born with the expectation of finding it provocative—but perhaps not for the reasons you might first assume.

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