An exploration of self beyond the lives of others, Julian Pölsler’s The Wall puts femininity and humanity on show in a glass cage.
The Glass Menagerie by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on the 1963 novel by Marlen Haushofer, The Wall is an intriguing parable of personal and political dystopia. It’s the story of an unnamed woman suddenly isolated from the rest of the world, and highly allegorical – its invisible glass wall suggestive of both the Berlin Wall, constructed two years prior, and the psychological alienation of individuals living in a rapidly modernising, material world. Its message of female empowerment, with one woman forging a life for herself by herself, has perhaps been lost in the half-century it has taken to make it onto the screen. But with Martina Gedeck at the film’s heart, Die Wand is still a testament to feminine fortitude (albeit through such simple signs as callused hands and cropped hair). The fact the “unfilmable” novel has finally been adapted by a male director underplays in a very 21st century way, the narrative’s female centre, Julian Pölsler underscoring instead its universality – paying homage to both mankind’s ability to reinvent itself and the human will to survive.
An unnamed woman (Martina Gedeck) is driving through the Austrian Alps with her friend Luise, her husband and their dog Luchs. Arriving at the couple’s hunting lodge, they head off into the village for a meal at a restaurant, while she and the dog stay behind to rest. She awakes the next morning to find husband and wife not returned, and walks along the valley road in search of them. En route, she comes face to face with an invisible wall. After several attempts to break it or pass round it, she begins to fear for the world outside, seemingly frozen in time. And so, gathering the landscape’s remaining living creatures around her – pregnant cow Bella, a cat and a kitten she names Pearl – she learns to survive in the alternately harsh and bucolic environment. Until one day a man arrives to shatter her peace.
The director of many a TV movie, Julian Pölsler’s cinematic debut couldn’t be less small screen. With breathtaking landscape cinematography, a minimal plot, an almost one-woman cast, and virtually mute at that (apart from the narrative voiceover from the journal she has to write), Die Wand is not only challenging but also utterly and unashamedly thought-provoking. There are questions but few answers to the story’s premise of a thrumming, insurmountable, unsurpassable boundary she can even press her nose up to. Is it psychological? Metaphysical? Political or societal? Why does Luchs choose to stay with her? What has happened to the world beyond, barely glimpsed and unfathomable? Enigmatic but nevertheless beautiful (a stunning adaptation shot over four seasons) and utterly absorbing, as we venture into her world and watch her learn how to live in the country.
Of course, it’s impossible to circumnavigate the film’s literary genesis – the diary of an isolated woman permeates the screen and the soundtrack like a persistent cow bell. But through Martina Gedeck’s captivating performance and intimate photography, Pölsler takes us beyond the verbose account of her survival into something much more cinematic – albino crows aside. She writes not to be read, nor for joy, but so as not to lose her reason; it’s communication laid bare, beyond artistic and intellectual affectation – “I speak therefore I am”. We learn very little about her life before and are offered no explanation for her disassociation with life. But in her grim determination to survive and her increasing confidence at her own self-sufficiency, we witness not only female empowerment but also the fulfilment of man’s desire to return to nature and live simply.
You could reduce the unnamed woman to a crazy cat lady, christening her animal companions and retreating into a world without the complexity of human interaction. But Die Wand is more than that – it’s a defiance of patriarchy shot dead when it appears, threatening her cow and calf, no matter that she destroys with it all possibility of human contact and all hope of a future. Above all though The Wall is as celebration of self as much as a Robinson Crusoe testimony of survival. It’s a self extrapolated to space and time, frozen in the Austrian Alps, beyond the reach of others. And like Julian Pölsler’s film, strong, independent and beautiful.
The Wall is released on 5th June 2013 in the UK