Imagine a film that combines My Side of the Mountain and Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death. Sound like fun? Then you should see Die Wand, Julian Polsler’s faithful 2012 cinematic adaptation of Marlen Haushofer’s book of the same name. Perhaps in the past, you’ve thought, “I like Wim Wenders’ films, but they don’t have enough explicit philosophical dialog!” In that case, Die Wand is the film for you!
In English, “Die Wand” means “The Wall,” and that is the name that it has been released under here in the United States, despite the obvious problem that it might be mistaken for Alan Parker’s film Pink Floyd—The Wall. It tells the story of an unnamed woman who goes to a hunting lodge with some friends. The friends go to town and don’t return. She soon finds that an invisible wall has appeared that prevents her from going to town. This is not such a bad thing, however, because it appears that everyone outside the wall has died.
Thus we follow the woman (that is literally her name: die frau) for the next two years as she comes to terms with and deals with her situation. She is caught inside with a pregnant cow, a cat, and a dog who she doesn’t like all that much at first. We watch her plant potatoes, cut hay for the cow, hunt deer, and much else. But mostly, we hear (in voice-over) her discuss the nature of existence. At one point early on, she says, “Perhaps it would have been wiser to go to the village with Hugo and Louise.” What she means is that if she had gone with her friends, she would be dead and would not have to make the many decisions she is now forced to make—like whether to kill herself or not.
There are many ways to interpret this film. I suspect the simplest is the best: it is an allegory of life. It is not that everyone outside the wall is dead, it is just that she cannot connect with them. As a result of this, she becomes as dependent upon her dog as he is on her. Dogs, because they are, in the grand scheme of things, stupid, love us on a level that we can never get from humans. And it works the other way around. Human relationships are too complicated because humans are too complicated. There is nothing complicated about a dog.
Despite what I’ve said, the film is engaging from beginning to end. I don’t think that the incessant voice-over was really necessary. I think the existential themes in the film come across loud and clear. That’s largely due to an exceptional performance by Martina Gedeck, who is the whole film. And most of what she gets to do is walk around and stare out of windows. Yet it never seems staged and never gets boring. From the beginning, the viewer cares about the woman.
Die Wand is also exceptionally beautiful. Each shot is framed with great care. And the film is edited very deliberately with relatively long shots. It is designed to be soaked in—to be enjoyed as a process. That said, I suspect most people won’t like the film. They want a film that is going somewhere. Die Wand is not going anywhere. It ends pretty much where it starts: she will continue on until she doesn’t. Just like all of us.
There is one strange technical thing in the film that is worth noting. It is in German with subtitles whenever anyone speaks—which is almost never. The voice-over, which seems to have been done by the same actor, is in English. I’m glad for this. I’m not a fan of subtitles. But it is odd, and I wonder that they didn’t just dub the little dialog that was in the film. It would have been easy with modern technology. (Yes Virginia, dubbing really can be done well.)