A history of (domestic) violence, Philip Gröning’s The Police Officer’s Wife combines contemplative chapters with stark moments of unsettling violence.
The Saddest Music In The World by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With not a single word spoken for the first ten minutes, you might take Philip Gröning’s The Police Officer’s Wife for a follow-up to his 2005 festival hit Into Great Silence. It’s a formalist, structuralist piece, comprised of 59 chapters, each bookended by intertitles which proclaiming both the beginning and the end. And if there’s a certain mysticism to the numerology – chapters 3, 13 and 23 all feature an old man who appears to be unrelated to this domestic drama, while 11 and 22 both are both to-camera singing – this soon breaks down, as any apparent patterns disintegrate (slightly disappointingly) into a senseless stream of images. Some sequences are poetically enigmatic, others frustratingly indecipherable, but slowly build to sketch out the portrait of a family living inside the pressure cooker of domestic violence.
Uwe (David Zimmerschied) works as a policeman, and after getting in after a long night shift, is careful not to work his wife Christine (Alexandra Finder) and young daughter Clara (twins Pia and Chiara Kleemann). It’s an ordinary life – they have dinner and take Clara out on Easter egg hunts, while Uwe and Christine arm-wrestle, play darts, have sex and watch TV. And yet slowly, their relationship loses its footing as Uwe blows a fuse when Christine disappears to bed one night without saying a word, or after a failed attempt at foreplay, pushes her violently off the bed. As bruises appear over Christine’s body, their relationship is plastered over with apologies, moments of forgetful playfulness and role-playing – as they put on a brave face for the sake of their daughter. But while Christine escapes into a tight bond with Clara, Uwe feels himself pushed aside. And when he finally finds his way in to a relationship with his daughter, his family’s world comes crashing down around them.
For a film about domestic violence, Philip Gröning’s The Police Officer’s Wife is somewhat surprisingly peaceable, focusing on the texture of their lives – with Uwe out patrolling the country roads (and checking up on his wife from his police car), or Christine planting a patio garden with Clara and going down to the river to look for earthworms. But gradually bruises appear – the explosions that caused them either elided or only hinted at, as Uwe sobs naked on the bed next to his wife’s motionless body. Nevertheless, Gröning’s slow-build story culminates in a gripping scene in which the couple, seemingly no longer able to bear each other’s presence, relive their spiraling dependency of violence, anger and sobbing for forgiveness. Until suddenly, in a bathetic moment of abject and senseless violence, Uwe hits out sideways, sending Christine to the floor. This time, lifeless.
There are some beautiful moments in Philip Gröning’s The Police Officer’s Wife, such as the distortions that see Christine pushed from the bed to the floor from an impossibly great height, or the bathtub that expands to embrace mother and daughter, safe in their amniotic universe. Yet, there are also some intentional curveballs, like the old man who watches over their story like destiny or a future Uwe, or the songs sung directly to camera – revealing the family as both individuals and a unit, not quite in harmony with each other. Other chapters figure more as tactile counterbalances than plot drivers, such as the sequences in which Christine stands by the window, scratching the pane with her thumb, trapped in an open prison.
It’s perhaps respectful to the victims of domestic violence that participated in constructing the narrative behind the film not to impose a reductive dynamic of abuser and victim, and yet beyond a few tableaux that ring painfully but all-too-briefly true, The Police Officer’s Wife doesn’t provide any deeper analysis of an abusive relationship. It allows us to observe, with a drawn-out, structural precision characteristic of contemporary German cinema, and forces us to participate in creating the story, but with little heed for the viewer’s emotional interest. And at nearly three hours, and a stream of kitchen-sink chapters in which very often very little occurs, The Police Officer’s Wife puts us in the unfortunate position of wishing it would cut to its violent chase a lot sooner.
The Police Officer’s Wife is released on 22nd August 2014 in the UK