Our world is so connected now that moments of solitude, peace and quiet can often be hard to come by without interruptions and distractions. From the real people in our lives to the virtual ones we interact with on Facebook and Twitter, there’s almost always someone else intruding on our private, little bubble. You’d think we could simply turn off the phone, iPad and laptop and go sit outside with a good book, but for many people that appears to be physically impossible.
But what if you had no choice?
An unnamed woman (Martina Gedeck) who we’ll call Frau (if only because IMDB lists her that way) arrives at a remote Austrian hunting cabin with two friends and their dog. They’ve only barely settled in when the couple decide to walk into town with the promise of returning by nightfall, but still absent the following morning Frau goes looking for them. She doesn’t get far as she collides with an invisible barrier blocking the road. She discovers that the “wall” surrounds an area several square miles in size with the cabin in the center.
And she’s all alone.
The premise here is a fantastic one, and while we’ve seen similar setups in recent years (The Simpson’s Movie, Stephen King’s Under the Dome) it still retains a powerful potential. It’s a “what if?” scenario allowing for a thousand variations as to who put the wall there, how will the people within come to grips with their new reality, and what is the story’s theme or ultimate message.
Or in the case of writer/director Julian Pölsler’s The Wall it’s little more than an opportunity for philosophical ramblings accompanied by gorgeous cinematography.
The initially fascinating setup is squandered almost immediately in two ways. First, after Frau hits the wall she makes almost no attempt to explore its limits or try to escape. She appears to simply assume it’s cutting her off completely and that it’s impenetrable to assault. The wall comes up against a lake, but at no point does she enter the water to see if it extends below the surface. Instead she simply accepts her fate.
To be fair, Pölsler’s script, based on the novel by Marlen Haushofer, never pretends to be interested in telling a standard narrative tale. The mystery as to who or what is behind the wall’s creation is at no point the focus, and it’s that realization that leads to the second, bigger issue.
Frau narrates her descent into solitude almost non-stop.
Voice overs in movies are rarely a good idea, and at best they should be used as sparingly as possible. Think Morgan Freeman’s brief statement at the end of Seven or Colin Farrell’s short intro and outro for In Bruges. Gedeck’s solitary character does the complete opposite here as she raises profound questions about the state of humanity, identifies her own struggles with boredom and loneliness and points out things that Gedeck herself has already made clear through a little something called acting.
She, along with the unrelentingly beautiful cinematography (credited to six different people) are the film’s saving grace. Gedeck is a talented actress capable of communicating emotions through her expressions and body movements, but the voice over insists on telling us what she’s feeling regardless. It’s an odd choice for a film about one character’s abrupt entry into a lonely existence as we’re never allowed to feel that loneliness ourselves. Because she won’t shut up.
There’s a survival angle here too as Frau is forced to harvest wheat, hunt animals and otherwise survive the seasons without much in the way of modern-day assistance, but even that angle takes a back seat to her constant, flatly intoned philosophical musings. The minimal violin score has a lonely appeal to it, and the brief times when Frau isn’t talking occasionally give way to the sounds of nature and the electric hum of the wall, but none are allowed the time to take hold of viewers and immerse us into Frau’s world.
The Wall is a strong concept wasted on ramblings better-suited for a college lecture hall. A brief and dramatic scene towards the end shows the missed opportunities elsewhere, but action and answers alone wouldn’t have salvaged the film. Instead Pölsler needed simply to trust his lead actress, and we in turn could have trusted him.
The Upside: Beautiful cinematography; strongly expressive performance by Martina Gedeck; Lynx the dog
The Downside: Voice over is incessant and redundant; philosophical musings aren’t enough to justify feature; nearly 60 seconds of watching a deer writhe in pain until it dies
On the Side: Marlen Haushofer wrote several novels before her death in 1970, but The Wall remains the only one to be translated into English.