Review first published by EyeforFilm.
“Freedom is a journey,” go the English-language lyrics to the anodyne pop song that plays on the car radio as elderly couple Hugo (Karl Heinz Hackl) and Luise (Ulrike Beimpold) drive through the Austrian hinterlands with their dog Luchs and an unnamed younger friend (Martina Gedeck), heading for a hunting lodge, in what is, chronologically speaking, the first scene of Julian Roman Pölsler’s The Wall (Die Wand).
If the upbeat tempo of the song, the perfect blue of the sky, the open road and the wind going through the passengers’ hair, all combine to suggest an idyll of Alpine liberty, that impression is effectively undermined by the film’s opening sequence, set several years later, in which Gedeck’s unnamed Woman is now all alone in the lodge, with a utilitarian haircut and only a dull grey for a view, madly scribbling her memoirs of survival on the backs of old calendars.
It is an act rife with symbolism, as booklets once used to calibrate a socially defined schedule now serve as the palimpsest for more personal annals, where time is measured not in days or months but in seasons and moods. As the Woman says in her opening narration, “Today is the 5th of November,” before adding, “But I can’t really know if today is the 5th of November… I doubt which time is very important.”
At the beginning of her ordeal, the Woman is “firmly resolved to wind up the clocks each day” and to stick to the prescribed agenda of her past life, but by the time she has started writing her report, such details no longer seem to matter. Accordingly, the film itself follows its own rhythms, while flipping backwards and forwards in time as fast as its protagonist’s thought and memories.
After all, the Woman has no expectation, or even hope, that anyone will ever read her words – and if these records represent, as she suggests, an attempt to enact her humanity and stave of the fear that she may have become a mere animal, they are also bounded by her limited supply of paper. As befits a film called The Wall, here everything seems circumscribed – and yet, in her strange entrapment, the Woman discovers the fluid boundaries between human and nature, man and woman, life and death, immurement and, yes, freedom.
Shortly after arriving at the lodge for their weekend getaway, Hugo and Luise head off on foot to the village, leaving Luchs behind with their friend – and when, by the following morning, they have still not returned, the Woman sets out looking for them, only to find instead a giant invisible wall enclosing her within a large rural space, with all signs of life beyond unnaturally frozen. What follows is an almanac of post-apocalyptic survival which, despite its initial SF trappings, is really a snowglobe study of the human condition.
The wall is an undeniable presence, both solidly tangible and, thanks to some stunning sound design, resonantly audible as it redefines and demarcates the Woman’s newly cloistered life. Yet the wall’s very invisibility, and the total absence of any explanation for its existence, also lend it a metaphorical construction, as though it might represent the claustrophobia that comes with depression, the isolation that comes with loneliness or marginalisation, or the ‘glass ceiling’ that has formed part of so many women’s experience in the 20th and 21st centuries.
No matter, however, what allegorical import you bring to the wall, the Woman’s gradual adjustment to subsistence against the elements, and her journey through despair, loss and madness towards acceptance, serenity and love, take on a decidedly spiritual dimension – without God ever getting so much as a mention. It is a stunning achievement, with some of the images of the Woman in her Alpine locations convincingly framed to resemble the sublime mystic landscapes of the painter Caspar David Friedrich.
“I no longer cared where the wall lay,” the Woman writes years later – and so the film too, having started with a premise both irrational and limiting, discovers within these minimalist narrative confines all manner of larger verities about our place in the universe. Adapted by Pölsler over seven years from Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 novel, The Wall remains a wordy affair, but the Woman’s ongoing narration of her ‘report’ acts as a humanising talisman against the emptiness and silence all around. Meanwhile, with no paper left on which she can keep writing, the Woman heads out to feed an albino bird to which, as an outcast like herself, she has taken a liking.
“I shall go out to the clearing and feed the white crow,” she says in her last reported words, “It shall already be waiting for me”. This certainly reflects her new-found sympathy with her natural environment, but it also subtly foreshadows how her story, like all our stories, will inevitably end.