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Art house: Austrian tale of a woman’s isolation in The Wall

Andrew Sun

 

If you get a kick from isolationist stories such as Cast Away, I Am Legend and Life of Pi, you’ll be sure to enjoy the utter alienation in the Austrian drama, The Wall (Die Wand).

A woman joins an older couple at a mountain country retreat. The day after arriving, the couple go into town for supplies but never return. A foreboding silence envelops the cottage, in stark contrast to the loud music that blasted from the couple’s convertible as they arrived. The unnamed woman, left with only a dog as a companion, heads down the road to find her friends but is blocked by an invisible wall. Think of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, but set in the Alps instead of small-town America.

The strange barrier is never explained – and it doesn’t seem to interest the filmmakers, who apparently prefer to develop subtext over plot devices. Unlike the woman, people outside the wall seem to be in a permanent state of suspended animation. At one part of the transparent wall, the woman stares at the strange sight of a farmer, frozen in mid-motion at a water pump, while the water flows out unaffected.

As weeks and months pass, she begins a journal mainly to get her mind off her Robinson Crusoe situation. “I must write if I do not want to lose my mind,” she notes.

Without anyone to converse with, her constant voiceover narration does the job of sharing her thoughts from beginning to end.

Adapted from a Marlen Haushofer novel by director Julian Pölsler, it’s an ambitious film featuring a tour de force performance from Martina Gedeck (previously in German critical hits including The Lives of Others and The Baader Meinhof Complex). She goes through several physical changes reflecting the extensive passage of time, but even more expressive is the stress on her face.

It’s a gauntness that stems from emotional starvation more than survivalist hunger and fear.

For company, she has a dog. Later, she finds a cow which she takes in for milk and sustenance. Then, there’s a cat. Meanwhile, her endless narration becomes more like an undergraduate thesis in social isolation.

“I am the owner and prisoner of the cow,” she contemplates. Later, she suggests her psychological needs are fulfilled through a kind of Protestant ethos as, in her own words, “(I) drugged me with work.” At one point, she even makes a comment that all her self-examination and analysis is “dangerous” – possibly expressing the notion that the idle in modern society are prone to overanalysis and self-absorbed neuroticism.

Pölsler’s movie is beautifully scenic but while the pastoral landscape may look like paradise, to the woman it’s still a confining prison. A shock ending makes an even more dramatic point: that an idyllic prison is still better than the hell that is other people.

48hours@scmp.com

 

The Wall, March 1, 9.50pm, Broadway Cinematheque, March 3, 7.45pm, Palace IFC. Part of the European Union Film Festival 2014

 

 

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