Directed by: Julian Pölsler
Written by: Julian Pölsler based on the novel by Marlen Haushofer.
Starring: Martina Gedeck (Frau).
Movies excel at a lot of things that novels do not – and vice versa. Not having read the book that is the basis of the Austrian film The Wall, I cannot say if it was one of those “unadaptable” books or not – but I do know that writer/director Julian Polsler probably could not have picked a worse way into turning the book into a movie. While the film is never less than beautiful to look at, and Martina Gedeck delivers a fine performance in the lead (and really only) role, The Wall commits the capital cinematic sin of telling, not showing and if nothing else shows future directors just how not to make a movie like this.
The film stars Gedeck as the unnamed protagonist of the story, who goes out to an isolated cabin in the woods with two friends. The friends head into town for a little while the first night, leaving Gedeck in the cabin alone with a dog named Lynx. When she wakes up the next morning, her friends still are not back – so she decides to head into town, on foot, herself. And that’s when she discovers it – the invisible wall that has trapped her, alone, in the middle of nowhere. Like the dome in Stephen King’s Under the Dome you cannot see this wall, cannot get over it, or under it and Gedeck has no idea where it came from. Walking back to the cabin, she sees two other people outside their cottage – and tries to talk to them. But, they are on the other side of the wall, and no matter how loud she screams, they cannot hear or see her. Then she realizes something – they aren’t moving. It’s like time has frozen outside the Wall.
The movie takes place over the days, weeks, months and finally years that Gedeck spends inside the wall – with no other people around, just her animals to keep her company. The wall has enclosed a huge space for her in the middle of nowhere – a forest, fields and lots of wildlife are inside with her and gradually she learns to take care of herself – how to harvest the crops growing inside, and hunt the animals. She bonds with Lynx the dog, and eventually with two cats she finds, along with a pregnant cow – and eventually the calf. The animals keep her going.
The problem with the movie is the near constant voiceover narration by Gedeck. We see her at the beginning sit down and begin to write down what she has experienced over her still ongoing time behind the Wall – which I would guess is the premise of the book as well. Over practically every moment of every scene, we her Gedeck’s voice narrating the action we see on the screen. She hardly says a word otherwise. The narration, which explains every thought and feeling Gedeck is experiencing onscreen, robs the movie of any real power. Reading a first person narrative can be very effective – having a constant voiceover is distracting in the extreme, especially in a movie like this.
After all, The Wall is ultimately about loneliness and solitude. Gedeck spends her days consumed by her tasks to try and stave off depression and loneliness, which she can only do for so long. It’s hard to make a film with only one character for nearly its entire running time – it’s why so few movies actually attempt to do it. When they work – like Robert Zemeckis’ Castaway (or apparently the upcoming All is Lost), they can be marvelous. But the fact that we have a near constant drone of a narrator robs the movie of its power – and its ability to make us truly relate to the loneliness and solitude Gedeck is experiencing. Worse, the narration is often not very interesting, and borders on the ponderous. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that Polsler simply transcribed much of the novel – because a lot of what we hear is the type of narration that may well work on the page, but sounds slightly silly when spoken aloud.
All of this is a shame, because The Wall looks beautiful – shot in the pristine wilderness, that the movie makes look beautiful or scary, depending on the moment. And Gedeck’s physical performance conveys so much without the narration, that I wonder if the movie would have played much better without any narration at all – that certainly would have been a more daring choice.
As it stands, The Wall is a missed opportunity. The constant narration doesn’t work at all, and detracts from the parts of the movie that do work. It’s impossible to watch The Wall and not wonder what kind of movie it would have been – and could have been – had no narration been added at all. At the very least, it would have been a much more daring film.