Locked into Infinity

in 62nd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festiva

by Zsolt Gyenge

In the dramaturgy of literature and cinema being alone in the forest has always been a typical moment of self-discovery, of meeting one’s own fears. The feeling of loneliness, the darkness of the forest, the defenselessness against the immense power of nature can bring out the most hidden secrets and forgotten attitudes, and can make people behave in a way they would never do in the controlled and regulated world of civilization.

This situation is created in a specific way of mixing poetic approach and that of science-fiction by German writer Marlen Haushofer in her novel (until now considered inadaptable to cinema) The Wall (Die Wand) first published in 1963. A woman in her thirties goes with an older couple to their hut in the mountains; in the afternoon the other two return to the village for a few hours to take care of something, but they never return. In the morning, when she finds herself alone, she also tries to go to the village, but a few miles further she bumps into an invisible wall, which surrounds a huge territory of mountains and valleys in every direction.

Austrian filmmaker Julian Roman Pölsler, after twenty years of directing television movies and series, adapted this novel in such a visually rich, cinematographic way that it makes you wonder why we have never heard of him before. The biggest challenge of this film was that, in order to produce cinematic images, he needed to use ‘objective’ images to show the whole situation and to describe in detail the surrounding nature, instead of the subjective verbal description of the heroine, which is used in the novel. For this, Pölsler made use of a report she is writing mainly for herself – as we discover later – several years after the appearance of the mysterious wall. In this way, while watching the amazing images we can hear in voice-over her reflections, emotional reactions on what has happened to her. Though sometimes these sentences make us really immerse into and identify with her situation, Pölsler — probably being too amazed by the text – made too much use of it. Indeed, there are moments when it is difficult to watch the very intense images and follow the text at the same time.

But the main achievement of this film is in the amazing images, which not only have the role to present the environment, but to somehow make us feel and understand the weight and the effect of several years of loneliness. Obviously the main issue for the six credited cinematographers was to avoid the kitschy postcard aesthetic when shooting the gorgeous mountains and plateaus, the forests and meadows. They managed this by a subtle deconstruction of the classical proportions of the image where, though the usual visual structure has been destroyed, a strange, different kind of unbalanced but still harmonious composition takes its place. So the images are still very spectacular, but somehow they bear the restlessness of a paradoxical situation: together with the heroine we have all the time the strange feeling of being locked in the infinite world of nature.

The fact this was a filmic adaptation also made it possible for Pölsler to make a clever reinterpretation of the novel. When we read the text and we see everything ‘through’ the eyes of the woman, we always have the feeling, that the wall is not a solid, completely real construction, but also somehow the symbol of an inner obstacle. However, in the film, where this wall can not only be described by words, but needs to be literally shown from an external position, we have more the feeling that we are dealing with a truly existing supra-natural thing. And in this way the film is less about the impossibility of passing through the wall, and more about the possibilities of survival in a completely new, forced situation. So the film tells us in a very visual manner the story of a very urban woman, how she copes with the unusual tasks and how she is less and less able to differentiate herself form the other living beings (animals and plants) of her environment. And we experience this not only through her words, but also through those magnificent shots, where sometimes we enjoy, for example, a fantastic empty night landscape, but then suddenly she starts to walk, and we find out that what we had thought being part of a tree, was in fact her body. Every shot is a new visual surprise consistent until the end of the screening.

It is also the writer-director’s merit, that in the process of abbreviation – a necessity for every adaptation – he didn’t make the mistake of using only the dramatically important elements of the novel. He left enough time for those unimportant moments, when she is doing some banal task or she is just sitting and waiting for the time to pass. In this way the story is not simply told to us, but we have to deal with the experience of time through the heroine. Pölsler’s film is a wonderful piece of adaptation, which is able to transform into visual material, into the language of cinema with not only the text at its base, but also the spirit of the novel.

The Wall is a complex, skillfully constructed, and very subtly designed film, played in a marvelously moderate manner by wonderful German actress Martina Gedeck, who never tries to look more important than the world around her, which in fact defines the heroine’s existence. And as we watch this slow-paced, almost meditative movie, as we observe the everyday activities, wanderings of the woman, and as we become conscious of our external visual position, we slowly realize that we are in fact viewers of a very strange Truman-show.

© FIPRESCI 2012