Skin Deep (Aus Meiner Haut) – Review

Aus Meiner Haut Skin Deep“Is it possible for a body to be inherently happier or unhappier than another body?” asks one of the characters within writer-director Alex Schaad’s feature-length debut, Skin Deep (Aus Meiner Haut). What is it that defines our human experience? Is it the mind? Or the body we inhabit? What limits us, traumatises us, frees us? These are just some of the questions that have clearly been swirling around Schaad’s head.

Along with his co-writer (his brother, Dimitrij Schaad, star of the hit Netflix series, Kleo), Schaad draws us into a world where gender, physicality, mental health, sexuality and all other “defining” elements of who we are are completely stripped away. It’s a film that oscillates between curious and liberating; worrying and provocative.

At the heart of it are Leyla (Mala Emde) and her boyfriend Tristan (Jonas Dassler). They are, it seems, taking a short break to visit an old university friend of Leyla’s. As they arrive at the mysterious island where “Stella” lives, it is clear that all is not as it seems. Stella is, in fact, living in the body of her father. And it goes beyond that. This island offers couples the chance to consensually body swap with others. Meaning that Leyla, who mumbles that she is going through a “rough patch” will get the chance to, literally, shed her skin.

The title cards sprinkled throughout the film let us know when Leyla and Tristan are living as themselves or when they living as the couple they have paired with. When Leyla inhabits the body of Fabienne (played by Maryam Zaree), she suddenly has a new lease of life. She has energy, enthusiasm and a real sense of inner peace. Tristan, however, hates inhabiting the boorish, constantly chewing Mo (Dimitrij Schaad). He doesn’t understand why the experiment means so much to Leyla. Morally, and emotionally, it is all too confusing for him.

Skin Deep weaves seamlessly between genres. The initial set up gives more than a whiff of Midsommar, with islanders walking around in flowing robes and everyone gazing toward a huge white silo. And, of course, this often feels like body horror without the gore. There are also moments of comedy as each character readjusts to their new physique. Mo, for instance, can’t believe his luck that he’s inherited Tristan’s six pack.

But this is a film that probes much deeper than surface level homage to any one specific style of film. It’s asking big, philosophical questions about our experiences. What happens if you feel trapped in your own mind? Could just stepping into another body help? How would we see ourselves if we could step outside our own bodies and look? What do we covet more – the happiness of others or the way they look?

Aus Meiner Haut Skin DeepSchaad suggests that body swapping allows some form of healing – from addiction, from trauma, from illness. And as Leyla’s battle against her own mind crescendos, she cries, “I’ve had a rough patch for as long as I can remember. I’m sick. I want it to stop.” Leyla just happens to be inside the body of Roman (Thomas Wodianka) as she pleads for just a few more days of not being herself.

The performances throughout are excellent. The characters very quickly define their quirks in order for the body swapping to make sense. You know, at any given point, who is inhabiting who. Mala Emde, however, stands out as giving an incredibly poignant depiction of mental health struggles. The crack in her voice as she desperately tries to make Tristan understand how she is feeling is a moment of sheer frustration and exhaustion that many will empathise with.

For the most part, the scenes are washed with muddy blues and greys; the startling white of the silo or the shininess of Mo’s burgundy suit standing out amongst the calm. The flamenco-inspired guitar playing that is peppered throughout the film adds its own burst of colour.

Whilst it does feel like Skin Deep races towards its conclusion – there are rather a few loose ends and body swaps to reconcile – the ending is brave and bold in what it suggests. This is a film that is going to leave you pondering the many complexities of identity and existence long after the credits roll.

This is an excellent feature-length debut that asks difficult questions. Bolstered by excellent central performances, Skin Deep is worthy of a much wider audience.

Skin Deep is up for the Audience Award at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023. Get your tickets here.

Mary Munoz
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