A Family Disaster

in 70th Venice Film Festival

by Jan Schulz-Ojala

He didn’t win. Many observers in Venice — from young filmmakers to older film critics — hoped he would get the Golden Lion, but he only got the Special Jury Prize — analogous to the bronze medal in the Olympic Games. But Philip Gröning, walking around after the ceremony holding the giant award box in his hands, was not unhappy at all. “It’s good that the prize didn’t go to some single contributor, but to the entire film”, he told congratulators in the lobby of the Excelsior Hotel. “As it is a very special one…”

Philip Gröning, the 54 year old German filmmaker, is very accurate on this point. His film The Police Officer’s wife (Die Frau des Polizisten) focuses on a small family slowly destroyed by the physical and psychological violence a man exerts on his wife, and it challenges its audience on several levels. First, it is three hours long. Second, Gröning divides his film into 59 chapters all separated by fades-to-black, and not only this — between each two scenes appear a couple of intertitles: “End of Chapter” and then “Beginning of Chapter”. Many viewers, but certainly not all of them, were irritated by this formal severity in the story’s structuring. The director defends his formal ambitions. “The viewer should totally get out of one episode”, he said in an interview. “And that’s exactly what makes him ready for the next one.”

Indeed, there is a story in The Police Officer’s Wife, but no classical narrative. The deterioration of the family life — witnessed by the cherished four year old daughter — progresses inevitably. But it is interrupted by tender moments, for example, when the family sings together facing the camera. And there are a couple of startling scenes with an old man obviously not connected to the rest of the events. Who is this man alone in his kitchen, people wondered after the screening. Is it the policeman himself as an old man? His father? A metaphor for the society looking away from domestic violence?

Gröning leaves it to the audience to find an answer. Not the “right” answer. Just an answer. Or no answer at all. So, the best approach to this exceptional film might be a patient one. The ensemble of the 59 scenes leads to a mosaic of emotions comprised of tenderness and cruelty. There is the touching intimacy between mother and child, and there’s the troubling loneliness between man and wife. And in the end, after a series of little implosions in the everyday life of the family, there is one big explosion. But the way Gröning imagines and illustrates the catastrophe is the softest you can ever imagine.

Don’t get the wrong impression: The filmmaker doesn’t evince any cheap pity for his sad and lonely anti-hero. He is with the woman who remains harrowingly unable to defend herself. And he looks with the same precise attention at the child adapting herself silently to the forlornness of her parents. He just avoids the simple — and simplistic — ensemble portrait of an infernal family, as does for example Alexandros Avranas in his film Miss Violence. The Greek filmmaker, winner of the Silver Lion for Best Director, also deals with domestic violence, and with dominance and abuse, but he presents the father (Themis Panou, who won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor) as a cool Satan, always self-controlled and easy to hate. In contrast, the young father in Gröning’s film is an isolated, hesitant man unable to control himself. He withdraws the oxygen of life from those he obviously loves, which means he is suffocating himself.

What makes a good festival film? The one you want to see again as soon as possible — or the one you won’t forget at all, no matter how many further pictures fill your head? Maybe both. The Police Officer’s Wife belongs to the second type. It’s an experience, a strong one.

Edited by Yael Shuv