Skin Deep

Skin Deep (Aus meiner Haut) (2022)

Skin Deep (Aus meiner Haut) had its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023

Writer/director Alex Schaad’s feature debut Skin Deep (Aus meiner Haut) opens with a diptych of sequences which together are programmatic for what is to follow. In the first, an old man (Edgar Selge) stands in the dark over a bed in which a much younger woman lies dead, her eyes open. “Papa?” says the man as he takes her hand, in a paradoxical reversal of rôles and identities. Then as the film’s titles appear, we see images of Leyla (Mala Ende) floating deep under water and looking up at the sunlight shimmering on the surface far above. 

In fact Leyla is only dreaming, and she wakes in the arms of her boyfriend Tristan (Jonas Dassler) as they travel on a ferry to an island. Yet Leyla always has that same dream of drowning, as an expression of how she is always overwhelmed by her own chronic depression and her dark, suffocating self. Once on the island, they are greeted by that old man, who explains that he is Stella, Leyla’s friend from university. For on this island, Stella’s late father – a “genius in the field of brain research” – had developed a system that allowed willing guests to swap their bodies for a period of time. 

The process is supposed to be temporary, but as the opening scene hinted, the system has its flaws and risks. The scientist died of an aneurysm in his sleep after he had body-swapped with his own daughter Stella, which explains why Stella is now caught in an older male body – indeed, in her own ‘old man’. Many of the guests might approach this as just a bit of recreational summer fun to take them beyond their normal horizons of experience, little different from doing psychedelic drugs over a weekend. For example, to Fabienne (Maryam Zaree) and her boorish husband Mo (the film’s co-writer Dimitrij Schaad), who are assigned by lot to swap bodies with Leyla and Tristan, this is just a weekend of swinging, and an opportunity to get away from both themselves and each other. 

Yet the effects that result from inhabiting someone else’s flesh – from negotiating where it ends and ‘you’ begin – can prove unpredictable, even life-changing. Once Mo and Tristan have swapped bodies, Mo quickly learns that the one thing he cannot escape is his own toxic personality. “I look great, I’ve got a six pack,” he says of Tristan’s leaner, more muscular frame, “but none of the other bullshit has gone away” – and as though to prove this, one of his first (typically narcissistic) acts is to try to have sex with Tristan, which is to say, with himself. Meanwhile, poor confused Tristan will find himself sort-of cheating on Leyla by sleeping with Fabienne (who is in Leyla’s body, but more open to sex than Leyla has been of late) – and Leyla herself, now in Fabienne’s body, will discover that her own crippling depression is gone.

Even as Tristan bails from the experiment and returns to his own body, Leyla will try ever more desperately to stay out of her own physiology, inhabiting other bodies and even – ecstatically – exploring a borrowed male anatomy or two. Tristan, who just wants to have his girlfriend back and to return home, will find his love tested to its limits as he tries to understand better what Leyla is going through and to accommodate what she wants.

Skin Deep wears its sci-fi lightly, reducing the technological process of psychic transfer to a mostly elided ritual act – and in this way, the film can concentrate its focus much more on concept and character. “You are the person you are because of the body you have,” Stella will tell Leyla. Where the others are just playing games with alterity, Leyla is deadly serious in her quest to escape the weight of a body that holds her under, unable to live and breathe. 

On the one hand, Schaad is dealing broadly in puzzles of identity and self. Stella describes the ‘so-called self’ as “a very fragile construct”, expressly citing these words from the father whom she claims “no one will ever be able to replace” – even as that is precisely what she herself appears to have done. Stella is not her father, but she has his body, is still running his fantasy island summer programme (although this is the last time), and still provides emotional support to her father’s (and before that Fabienne’s) partner Roman (Thomas Wodianka) – so she also is no longer really herself, at least in the sense that she has been forever changed by these body swaps. Here, much as the visitors to the island are loaned different vessels for themselves, the mind-body problem itself is given a fresh narrative skin, allowing the paradoxes of this philosophical crux to be made flesh. 

On the other hand, this story of turbulent crossings, which opens with a ferry voyage and ends with one final, permanent exchange, is staging a dysphoric drama of queerness and transsexuality, as Leyla leaves behind the shackles of self-alienation imposed on her – by society, by science – and fully embraces her ideal embodiment in otherness. If you are looking for an allegory of transition, this is it.

Yet Schaad’s film also delivers strong psychological truths in its strange packaging. Leyla’s skin is marked with the scars that attest to her longing to be free of it, and just as Mo is surprised, in Tristan’s body, to find that he has retained Tristan’s muscle memory for guitar-playing, those who take on Leyla’s body also take on her gravity, heavy enough to lead to self-harm, suicide or even murder. Leyla may ultimately be liberated, but her emancipation comes at the price of a sacrifice that is as tragic as it is romantic, allowing the chivalrous Tristan to live up to the associations of his name. For here, human suffering is not so much shared as redistributed, and love is no less a take than a give.

Meanwhile, the peculiar premise of Skin Deep demands an unusual versatility from its cast, who must, from act to act, impersonate – and recognisably impersonate – a range of very different characters. This is very much an actors’ film – and a film about the rôles that we all play as we sink or swim in life.

strap: Alex Schaad’s body-swapping lo-fi sci-fi is a dysphoric drama of depression, alienation, transition and extreme empathy

© Anton Bitel