Release date: July 5th, store 2013
Running time: 91 minutes
Country of origin: Austria
Original language: English
Director: Julian Pölsler
Writers: Marlen Haushofer, ed Julian Pölsler
Cast: Wolfgang M. Bauer, Ulrike Beimpold, Martina Gedeck
When I was a kid, I had an elaborate recurring fantasy in which I had my own house. It was the kind of pipe dream that involved colourful diagrams and a predictable lack of common sense. It was going to be underground, at the summit of the remaining Mott of a long vanished hill fort; I never contemplated that the lack of natural light might be an issue. One thing I explicitly recall, in those faraway musings, was that I was always alone in the house. I was hardly a solitary child – this was more likely a reaction to the amazing opportunity to get into the bathroom when I needed, watch as many films as I wanted, or avoid having to eat greens – but I never once considered how lonely it could all get.
We’re very social animals and the interactions we have with others are not only pleasurable, but a vital component of what makes us human. It’s perhaps through extended periods of seclusion that we can come to appreciate how pivotal contact and tangible communication becomes to our humanity. The effects of isolation are reflected on at length by the protagonist in Julian Pölsler’s adaptation of Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 dystopian novel, The Wall (Die Wand).
An unnamed woman (Martina Gedeck) recounts her tale to us, keen to keep scribbling down her story although she’s aware that nobody will ever read it. It all begins when she headed out into the picturesque Austrian mountains, the wind blowing in her hair, for a peaceful retreat with friends at their quiet lodge. No sooner have they opened the front door than the couple accommodating her set off for a stroll down to the nearest village leaving her with their affable dog, Luchs. When her hosts fail to return that evening, she assumes that they’ve elected to remain in a guesthouse overnight, but they’re still absent when she awakes the following morning, so she sets out after them, with Luchs trotting along for company. The pair are stopped dead in their tracks, however, when they walk into an invisible barrier in the road.
This could be the point at which the story veers into overt science fiction but it effectively ignores the route before it. The woman doesn’t spend her time attempting to discern the nature or cause of this transparent wall. She charts out her perimeter, ascertaining how much of the world she has to live in and experiences the chilling sight of people outside of the barricade; frozen still, effectively dead. The plot then ceases and atmosphere takes over. We become immersed in her new, solitary existence that sees her returning to a forgotten way of life uninterrupted by the rest of the world.
This can be both blessing and curse, which the heroine discovers as she wrestles to keep going, and to retain her humanity as she does. She soon has a handful of companions in the form of the aforementioned Luchs as well as a bull, cow, and cat, but when your only acquaintances can’t return you conversation, the desire to speak undoubtedly fades. However, the need to communicate still compels the woman, whether gripped with despair or soaring with delight, to detail her life. Her journal, scrawled upon the reverse of now obsolete calendars, is an irreplaceable way of clasping on to her personality whilst coming face to face with herself in this inexplicable prison.
We to hear her musings through a persistent voiceover that will almost certainly rankle with some. I, personally, tend to find such devices tiresome and lazy but in this case it’s absolutely necessary. Some may consider it to be an inability to divorce the film from the source text – and this may actually be the case for the filmmaker, having heard him speak about it – but actually it acts as an unequivocal aspect of the woman’s ongoing battle. There are certainly passages where her narration is redundant in terms of content; but it’s not what she is saying, as much as that she’s saying something.
There are also clear feminist themes also at work, in the novel and the film, that’ve been discussed in much more depth that I am going to here, but with the wall analogous to the glass ceiling and the late discovery of another human – a male – there are clear indicators. Whether these, or a symbolic representation of depression are at the forefront of the filmmaker’s mind, the idea of getting back to nature and away from modern behaviour is also up there on screen. The destructive nature of humanity is heartbreakingly realised even as the woman attempts to retain hers.
Shot over the course of fourteen months in the Salzkammergut region of Austria, The Wall is visually sublime. Utilising an entire team of skilled cinematographers to capture the literal shifting of seasons, the landscape is beautifully presented in all its glory with Martina Gedeck’s exceptional performance always anchoring the action. It’s no mean feat to not only play the only role in a feature film, but excel at doing so, conveying everything required and transfixing us throughout.
So, with its high concept premise, minimal dialogue and more animals than humans, The Wall might be something of an acquired taste, but it’s one I’d urge people to sample. The performance and photography are both stunning and regardless of which reading you embrace, it should prove equally thought-provoking and mesmerising. Why, it even proved the final nail in the coffin of my subterranean dream home.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.