Bleak and beautiful, harrowing yet also curiously stirring, “The Wall” (“Die Wand”) is a stunning tale of isolation and survival that unfolds in a wild and silent world.
Based on the 1963 novel by Marlen Haushofer, published two years after the Berlin Wall’s appearance, “The Wall” begins with a threadbare science fictional proposition which, in Hollywood’s hands, would disintegrate after the first reel. One sunny May, a middle-aged woman played by Martina Gedeck (“The Lives of Others,” “The Baader Meinhof Complex”), drives with a couple to a hunting lodge in a remote Austrian mountain valley. As a final ironic message from civilization, a pop song blares on the car stereo, “Freedom is a journey to yourself.”
We know nothing about her. Her friends walk into town. The next day, she sets out to find them, only to confront an invisible barrier in all directions. When she touches it, the wall buzzes ominously like an impenetrable electric fence.
Logic-bound viewers may roar with frustration. Where did the wall come from? How tall is it? Lady, why not dig under it? But accept the premise, just as our nameless heroine accepts the wall as possibly magic, a force field, or a figment of her demented imagination, and “The Wall” will take you on a brooding psychological journey to that imagined time before humans stained the earth. Think Stephen King’s novel (and now TV series) “Under the Dome,” minus the noisy, interpersonal brouhaha. Under this dome we find a slow-paced, existential burn.
First-time director-writer Julian Pölsler creates an accidental protagonist more warped than Thoreau. With only her dog Lynx, a stray cow, and two cats as her companions, the woman spends her days in this “bell jar” hunting deer, haying the field, and walking the alpine landscape. Her every move is shaded by the portentous threat of failed survival.
“Sometimes, my thoughts begin to tangle up, and it’s as if the forest is growing roots in me,” the woman muses, “and thinking its old eternal thoughts with my brain.”
Gedeck plays her Crusoe with a mysterious understatement. She barely utters an on-screen word. Rather, we hear quotes from her “report,” the diary she’s writing. The voice-over permits the story to move back and forth in time between the newly marooned woman just learning how to survive by her wits, and the more grizzled, sometimes shell-shocked survivor falling into a depressive stupor. But the constant chatter also keeps “The Wall” from becoming a masterpiece. Ponderous thoughts like “I must write if I don’t want to lose my mind” diminish Pölsler’s gradually building argument. Ideas can feel redundant, given the unforgettable landscapes: snow-dipped conifers, stunningly green pastures, and dreary, fairy tale mists, all set in some vague pre- or post-apocalypse. Pölsler should trust the punch of his imagery.
“The Wall” has the air of an Austrian/German co-produced “Twilight Zone” episode, without the cloying moral. It explores what binds us to the animal world, and deftly exposes humanity’s true, tenuous place in nature, reduced to its marrow. Compared to the romance of “Walden,” “The Wall” shoves extreme self-reliance in our face.