Milk Teeth

Milk Teeth (Milchzähne) (2024)

Milk Teeth (Milchzähne) has its UK première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2024

“She was just standing in our garden, as if by magic,” greying Edith (the aptly named Susanne Wolff) tells her young adult daughter Skalde (Mathilde Bundschuh) of the strange little girl Meisis (Viola Hinz) who has turned up unannounced at the beginning of Milk Teeth (Milchzähne). Skalde’s instant response is to drive Meisis from their house on the village’s margins to the middle of the woods and to dump her there unceremoniously with the words, “Get lost.” After all, this village does not take kindly to strangers, and still regards even Edith, 19 years after she first arrived and married a local, as an outsider and a witch. 

Stigmatised by her mother’s pariah status and their shared bloodline, Skalde is desperate to prove herself a worthy part of the community. She trades and picks fruit with the others (though prefers hunting alone), and has become like a second daughter to the village leader Pesolt (Ulrich Matthes) alongside his real daughter Levke (Lola Dockhorn). Yet when little Meisis comes back, her return coinciding with losses of livestock and disappearances of children, the villagers are quick to blame this new outsider, forcing Skalde to decide where her true allegiances lie.

“Some stranger crossing our border,” says old Gösta (Karin Neuhäuser) of Meisis. “How did she ever manage it?” Later another local woman will say: “No one made it past the border since Edith.” Sophia Bösch’s feature debut (co-written with Roman Gielke, adapted from Helene Bukowski’s 2019 debut novel) is a story of borders. First there are the borders that separate, even protect, this unnamed village from the dangers, vaguely post-apocalyptic, of the world beyond (there is much talk of deadly ‘burnt fields’, and of having nowhere to go). The village itself is divided, all at once earthily real and eerily folkloric. For on the one hand it is a lived-in rural location of the modern era, with beat-up old cars and agricultural activities and rifles and messy, bookstrewn homes and hardened people who wear no makeup, while on the other it is ruled by superstitions and ‘fairytale’ fears that seem rooted in some sort of intradiegetic reality. Meisis will confide in Edith: “I’m not a girl… I’m a wolf” – although she will tell Skalde, “I’m not a wolf child”, and we remain unsure whether to regard her as an actual lycanthropic creature or merely an orphaned, traumatised wild child looking for a new home. Meanwhile Edith herself seems genuinely to have a preternatural sympathetic connection with the various dogs in the village, who pack happily around her.

All this feeds into a local myth about malicious wolf children who come from outside and adopt human guise to do mischief. According to this story, as Skalde explains to Meisis, “You can only distinguish them by looking in their mouths – they have tiny teeth that never fall out.” Hence the film’s title Milk Teeth – and its intertextuality with Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (Kynodontas, 2009), which similarly presents a hermetic society trapped in its own patriarchal belief system, not to mention bloody dental extractions as a way of getting around the rigid rules.

The locals may fear the incursion of werewolves and witches, figures of fantasy, but they also fear, and marginalise, otherness more generally. It is not just Edith who lives on the outskirts of the village, but the alcoholic Kurt (Vedat Erincin), as well as old Gösta and her life partner Len (Walfriede Schmitt), whose homosexuality marks their difference. Levke may live in the centre with Pesolt, but she too turns to heavy drinking to conceal her own lesbian feelings for Skalde from her father. After all, in this town, there are worse punishments than mere ostracism, and many still bear crippling scars for having transgressed the stultifying local conventions and incurred the violent end of discrimination and xenophobia.

Milk Teeth tells a story of small-town prejudice and superstition, wherein brutal, narrow-minded adults themselves bring about the very disappearance of the next generation which they ascribe to outside threats. It evokes, in different ways, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004) and Ali Abbasi’s Border (Gräns, 2018), as it blurs woodland dread both real and fairytale – but through Aleksandra Medianikova’s stunning close-ups of nature and Gina Keller’s unnerving sound design, this magical realist parable also finds its very own peculiar lyricism.    

strap: Sophia Bösch’s feature debut is a post-apocalyptic magical realist allegory of small-town superstition, prejudice and xenophobia

© Anton Bitel