THE WALL (Die Wand) C+
Germany Austria (108 mi) 2012 ‘Scope d: Julian Roman Pölsler
Films often turn to literary sources, and to the extreme, like Chilean director Raúl Ruiz’s final film Night Across the Street (La noche de enfrente) (2012), the entire film becomes read passages from selected literary works, where the result is so literary that the experience is consumed with reading subtitles, where there’s so much narrated material that you’re literally reading a movie instead of watching it. While THE WALL (DIE WAND) was originally filmed in German, Music Box Films, in their infinite wisdom, decided to convert the film entirely into English language, which alters the distinct mood and tone of the film, though the film is so literary the intent is likely to prevent viewers from otherwise reading a movie with subtitles. Instead, the entire film consists of spoken narration, words from a diary entry, where the monotonous drone of the narrator drifts through the entirety of the film, where occasionally one simply tunes out and stops listening. The excessive verbiage has a detached, experimental feel, as it’s obviously not for everyone, but it’s beautifully read and otherwise wordlessly acted by German actress Martina Gedeck, from THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), in what turns into a one-woman show on screen. Adapted from Austrian author Marlen Haushofer’s 1962 novel, the film is set in the Alpine forest region of the author’s birth 6 months after World War II ended, actually filmed in the Salzkammergut Mountains and the adjacent Dachstein Mountains of Austria, both part of the Northern Limestone Alps. The mountainous setting is enormously significant, balancing the surrounding natural beauty with the dark and dreary tone of the narration which has an end of the world, apocalyptic feel about it. Without explanation, unnamed protagonist Martina Gedek wakes up one morning only to discover the entire surrounding mountainside is encircled by an invisible wall, where she is left to figure out her fate alone in a rustic cabin setting which at least initially has plenty of stored provisions. Told in flashback, the ominous opening finds her essentially a castoff from the world after an extended period of seclusion and isolation, paying particular importance to sitting in her darkened cabin and writing her “report,” hoping others would somehow discover her literary and philosophical revelations as perhaps the last human thoughts on earth.
Initially, because of the date so close after the war, one might assume she’s been somehow stranded in a remote region with no way out, perhaps even a former prisoner, as her hair is cropped so short, distinctly different from the flowing hair we see in the flashbacks. Her tone and demeanor immediately suggest a sense of desperation, where writing in her report is the only way left to communicate the essence of what is human. There may even be the sense that she is the last human left in the world, but this is left unexplained and ambiguous. Once she realizes her prisoner status, it’s an interesting contrast to the natural abundance that surrounds her. But she leads an orderly existence, planting potatoes and wheat, working hard while keeping active and busy, where her character wanders through the mountainside in all seasons of the year with her dog Luchs, who becomes her only friend left in the world. Over time, she also collects a cow that wanders out of the forest and a cat, where the cow at least requires considerable care and effort to milk and feed, where just keeping it alive matches her own unique fate. Later she favors a white crow that frequently visits nearby, especially as this crow is also isolated in its existence, continually harassed and picked on by the other black crows, becoming shunned in much the same way as she feels herself. A rhythmic cycle of writing in her report is established throughout the film, which becomes the most essential part of her existence, in her view, so a great deal of importance is placed on the content. Reading so many lengthy passages, the film has the air of an introspective and contemplative work, but the pervading sense of doom and quiet resignation has an endlessly monotonous tone of futility about it, literally drenched in abject hopelessness and despair, where between read passages, the viewer sees a natural cycle of life blooming through the various seasons as she continuously roams the mountainsides.
Once the pattern of reading is established, it only repeats itself throughout the film, becoming ever more predictable and routine, lessening the suspense or dramatic impact, where after awhile the viewer may actually stop listening, as despite the explorative intellectual quality, it becomes endlessly tiresome, like waves lapping upon the shore, which initially hold a hypnotic rapture, but eventually you need to move on. Just as she feels herself a prisoner, the viewer is similarly held hostage by this continuously repeating cycle of hearing the sound of her voice, which haunts the viewer throughout, often with beffuddled amazement at her predicament. Since her voice is elevated to such prominence, perhaps the last remaining human voice on earth, hearing her speak in English feels off-putting and downright peculiar, an artificially imposed lie, as she speaks German, where it would be infinitely preferable to read the subtitled passages and hear the sounds of her own voice, not some substitute. This same argument has been raised with Miyazaki animated films, among the most beautiful ever created, where the dumbed down American preference is to have everything translated into English, rationalizing that this allows more time to watch the luscious visualizations. But this essentially eliminates the efforts made by the original actors who were the choice of the director to convey what amounts to his closest vision of perfection. The Americanization of this original form is an alteration from the director’s vision, a substitute version which changes the tone and the director’s original intentions. A beautiful Japanese song, for instance, which concludes SPIRITED AWAY (2001), remains untranslated in the English version, so the inherent poetry is simply lost. This artificial imposition is reminiscent of Ted Turner’s 1980’s attempts to colorize Black and White films, a project that was eventually scuttled due to an outcry from the film community. The Criterion Laserdisc of CASABLANCA (1942), one of the most beloved movies of all time, contains a couple minutes of the colorized version as a supplement, easily recognizable as a mistake bordering on blasphemy. In one of Orson Welles’s final interviews, he was known to have said “Tell Ted Turner to keep his crayons away from my movies.” That being said, in either version, the rhythm of dreary monotony is the established tone, a slow moving and minimalist story about leading a world-weary and solitary existence, told with meticulous visual detail. Despite her insistence for a regimented listing of her daily activities, as if living in a POW camp, there is an overly somber, death-like weight attributed to the philosophical introspection which for many may feel overly gloomy and self-absorbed (we never see her read a book for instance), predisposed to her own existential No Exit mortality, and out of balance with the Edenesque natural world surrounding her that thrives with an unsurpassed beauty and vitality.