The Wall is director Julian Pölsler’s first theatrical feature, and for a filmmaker whose entire career up to this point has been on television, it is a surprisingly artistic effort that prioritizes aesthetic immersion and thematic contemplation over narrative. Spare, stripped down stories are heavily favored by arthouse filmmakers because they create the space in which the themes can be fully explored through style, but generally speaking those stories still need to be engaging. Despite having a concept that immediately grabs your attention, The Wall fails to tell a story that does the concept any justice, resulting in a dull affair where nothing really happens and the philosophical ideas presented resemble a high school essay on existentialism.
Based on the celebrated novel by Marlen Haushofer, The Wall tells the story of a woman (Martina Gedeck) who goes on a hunting trip in the mountains that was only supposed to last a weekend. But when her cousin goes down to the nearby village and doesn’t return, the woman (whose name we never learn) decides to head to the village and investigate, only to discover an invisible wall barring the way. This wall stretches for miles, enclosing her in a prison that isolates her completely from all human contact. After spending years living off the land with only a dog for company and with no end in sight to her predicament, she begins to write a journal with whatever scraps of paper she can find, telling her story to an audience she can’t be sure will ever exist.
This is a tantalizing setup with limitless potential to explore. How does one cope with the psychological shock of isolation so profound and so immediate? How long would it take before one gives up on escape? Can one live without hope, and why? Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really seem to care about any of this. It skims across the most interesting period in the protagonist’s psychological ordeal, that first month or two of coming to terms with the undeniable truth of her situation. The film doesn’t spend any significant time with the protagonist as her desperate determination to escape is slowly replaced with a stubborn insistence on surviving, and instead opts to devote the majority of the story to her harvesting and hunting food, walking the dog, and musing about the differences between humans and animals. It ends up giving the impression that this mother of two didn’t make any real effort to get back to the only world she’s ever known, and almost eagerly dove in to a life she has no experience living –– and yet, aside from missing her first rifle shot, she doesn’t seem to have much trouble getting the hang of it.
Clearly the film cares about the philosophical notions this situation might present more than it does about the effects it has on the human psyche. In the hands of a filmmaker like Bela Tarr, perhaps this focus would have succeeded. Indeed, there are moments when it seems like something profound is struggling to break through –– moments when stunningly haunting imagery and delicate music seem just on the verge of asking an unanswerable question. But then the incessant voiceover barges in, and we’re treated to repetitive and trite ramblings about how mercy is the dividing line between animals and humans, how much she loves the dog because the dog is her only friend, and why she feeds a white crow that’s been exiled by its (presumably racist) crow peers. And that’s when it’s not telling us things we should be seeing instead, or explaining actions that are happening on screen like she’s some sort of sports commentator. If the voiceover wasn’t so suffocating, then we’d be able to make up our minds about the line (if there is one) between humans and nature for ourselves. Perhaps the use of animals as metaphors wouldn’t seem quite so pedestrian. Perhaps the more intriguing conflict between the impermanence of the modern world and the inevitability of nature wouldn’t be drowned out by a voiceover that seems completely ignorant of that aspect of its story.
In short, if the film wasn’t so busy telling us what it thinks it’s about, the audience would be better able to come to their own conclusions, and the film would be much smarter for it. As it is, it can only stand on the strength of its visuals. While cinema is a visual medium, rarely can a narrative film succeed with pretty pictures alone, and The Wall is just weighed down too much by the tedium of its pseudo-intellectual protagonist and her improbably easy surrender to circumstance.
The Wall opens on June 14, 2013 and can be screened at at the Laemmle’s Royal in West LA, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino.