Serafim Smigelskiy, the cellist in the Tesla Quartet, playing alone in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Photo by Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Friday, September 07, 2018

Die Wand / The Wall (2012) – A film by Julian Roman Pölsler – Starring Martina Gedeck (Download the movie)

Martina Gedeck, star of the Academy Award®-winning film The Lives Of Others, brings a vivid intensity to this mysterious and riveting tale of survival set in a spectacularly beautiful Austrian mountain landscape. In a tour-de-force performance, Gedeck stars as an unnamed character who suddenly finds herself cut off from all human contact when an invisible, unyielding wall inexplicably surrounds the countryside where she is vacationing. Accompanied by her loyal dog Lynx, she becomes immersed in a world untouched by civilization and ruled by the laws of nature. As she grapples with her bizarre circumstances, she begins an inward journey of spiritual growth and transcendence. Based on Marlen Haushofer's eponymous classic novel, The Wall is a gorgeous, mesmerizing adventure film that raises profound questions about humanity, solitude, and our relationship to the natural world.

Winner! Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, Berlin International Film Festival 2012

"Riveting and emotionally involving from start to finish. Intensely cinematic. Gedeck's performance is phenomenal." — Jonathan Romney, Screen International

"Julian Roman Pölsler imbues his widescreen adaptation of the Marlen Haushofer novel with a certain visual majesty." — Boyd van Hoeij, Variety

"Absorbing... a one-woman study of physical and mental survival!" — Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times

"A captivating fable, an end-times scenario that's more about the survival of the spirit than the body!" — Farran Smith Nehme, New York Post

"Beautiful and Haunting." — Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice


Die Wand / The Wall (2012)

Director: Julian Roman Pölsler
Writers: Marlen Haushofer (novel), Julian Roman Pölsler (screen adaptation) 
Producers: Wasiliki Bleser, Rainer Kölmel, Antonin Svoboda, Bruno Wagner
Cinematography: Markus Fraunholz, Martin Gschlacht, Bernhard Keller, Helmut Pirnat, Hans Selikovsky, Richi Wagner
Editor: Bettina Mazakarini, Natalie Schwager, Thomas Kohler
Sound design: Johannes Konecky
Production: Coop 99 Filmproduktion, Starhaus Filmproduktion

Martina Gedeck..........The Woman
Ulrike Beimpold..........Luise
Karlheinz Hackl..........Hugo
Wolfgang M. Bauer..........Man
Julia Gschnitzer..........Keuschlerin (elderly woman)
Hans-Michael Rehberg..........Keuschler (elderly man)

Music by Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Partitas | Violin: Hilary Hahn

Production Year: 2012
Release Date: 05/31/2013
Countries of Production: Germany, Austria
Language: German
Running Time: 108 minutes
Screen Ratio: 2.35:1
Sound: Dolby Digital

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You don't see many films that so overtly address the Human Condition – with capital letters – as intense, contemplative Alpine drama The Wall (Die Wand), essentially a one-woman turn by German star Martina Gedeck. But, if you can buy the bizarre metaphorical premise that gets the film going, then Julian Roman Pölsler's spectacularly-shot, highly intelligent adaptation of Marlen Haushofer's early 1960s bestseller is riveting and emotionally involving from start to finish, though offering few conventional narrative pleasures.

The novel's lack of profile in many territories (notably English-speaking) means that many distributors won't be able to play on the recognition factor. But the superb solo achievement of Gedeck (best known outside Germany for The Lives of Others) will help boost prestige appeal to upmarket, serious-minded audiences.

Gedeck barely speaks, other than in the voice-over narrative threaded throughout. She plays an unnamed woman first seen sitting in a darkened cabin writing her "report", as she puts it, on an extended period of seclusion. In a flashback, we see her insouciantly enjoying a car journey through the Austrian mountains with two older friends. The others drive off to the nearest village, leaving the Woman in the company of their dog Luchs (Lynx), which mysteriously chooses to stay behind.

Searching for her missing hosts the next day, the Woman finds the road blocked by an invisible "wall" – a sort of force field that Gedeck first evokes by doing a sort of Marcel Marceau mime routine (though some shots appear to use an actual transparent surface). Weirder still, in an eerie sequence, we later learn that people on the other side of the wall have been frozen in time – meaning that the Woman is not only trapped alone, but also quite possibly the last person left alive on earth.

Once we accept this odd premise, somewhere between sci-fi and Kafka, then the existential dimensions of the Woman's situation become increasingly resonant – all the more so because the film's exploration of her plight is so concrete. As the Woman explores her new domain – like a Robinson Crusoe of the mountains – Pölsler examines her world, and her daily life, in detail.

The Woman finds both emotional and physical sustenance – a cow's sudden appearance betokens a sign of life, and a source of milk, while two cats and the quietly boisterous Luchs (played by the director's own pet) offer a further connection with the world. This bucolic idyll doesn't last long, however, and over several seasons, things get tougher, both physically and spiritually.

The voice-over offers some quietly provocative – if perhaps, ultimately pessimistic – cogitations on solitude, sanity and mankind's relation to time, nature and the universe. The film was shot over several seasons – presumably one reason for its phalanx of credited cinematographers, although its visual tone is extremely consistent.

Gedeck's performance, which must have been physically demanding in the extreme, is phenomenal – only occasionally does she directly express outward emotion, but in her interaction with animals and the landscape (including the seemingly real delivery of a calf), she creates a powerful impression of her character's coming to merge with the Great Outdoors.

The landscape photography, stunning without any traces of postcard beauty, merges with the voice-over to create a narrative that's partly existentialist, partly indebted to the German Romantic tradition. Sparse music includes Bach partitas played by violinist Julia Fischer; but sound design is paramount, from the ambient landscape noise to the wall's unsettling electronic hum. Pölsler is a veteran TV director, but The Wall is intensely cinematic – a high-risk, high-intelligence drama that will be intensely rewarding for viewers willing to scale its rarefied but heady heights.

Source: Jonathan Romney, 2012 (

Julian Roman Pölsler's Die Wand / The Wall is the kind of film Hollywood seems reluctant to make; perhaps it lacks the patience. Pölsler pursued this unique project with single-minded devotion ever since he fell in love with Marlen Haushofer's novel 25 years ago. The film was all but shot, by nine master cinematographers over several years, in his own back garden – which fortuitously happens to be one of the most stunning spots on earth: the Austrian Alps. The Wall is notable for the sparsity of its plot, absence of dialogue and characters, slow pacing, long takes, philosophical depth, sublime beauty, and timelessness. It is hard to imagine such a film getting the green light from the likes of Fox, MGM, Paramount or Universal.

The Wall starts, as it means to go on, with a series of flashbacks and a report. It is the fifth of November, perhaps. As she writes by flickering lamplight in a gloomy chalet room, a middle-aged woman tells us she has lost track of time, that she is alone and afraid. She writes, she says, to keep fear at bay, that sanity be kept. We grow accustomed to the cabin's bosky light and atmosphere of eerie melancholia. Suddenly, the screen explodes with colour, sunshine and song. The unnamed woman is now in an open-topped Mercedez-Benz with an elderly couple, Hugo (Karl Heinz Hackl) and Luise (Ulrike Beimpold), and their dog Luchs (Pölsler's own Bavarian bloodhound). As they tear towards the couple's hunting lodge, the car stereo belts out uptempo funk: "Sisters and brothers, give me freedom and love. Freedom is a journey, a journey to your self". The lyrics are Pölsler's, the singer is Austria's Sabine "Zabine" Kapfinger, and the off-screen narrator's voice is that of German actress Martina Gedeck. The report repeats, almost verbatim, the one that runs through Haushofer's novel of 1963. The woman's weekend break and her fraught, fearful journey toward self-reliance and self-discovery are only beginning, but already this elegant, magnificent film has us under its hypnotic spell.

Those opening scenes tell us we're in for something special and that we are embarking on a cinematic journey that will take us far from the comforts of home. That journey soon becomes stranger. Shortly after the party's arrival at the lodge, Hugo and Luise take a stroll down the secluded valley to the local village. The woman and Luchs (Lynx) remain behind. To the woman's surprise, she awakes the next day to find that she and the dog are alone. A greater surprise awaits her. She sets out, with Luchs, in search of her missing hosts, she tottering along the stony road on city high heels, he scampering happily ahead. Without warning, Luchs whimpers, then stops in his tracks. As the woman coaxes him on, she collides with an invisible, impenetrable wall. She staggers back, alarmed and bewildered by the impasse. Returning to the lodge, she is relieved to spot a couple at a nearby cottage. She greets them but is horrified, first to find the wall intervening as she approaches them, then by the realization that they are stone dead, frozen in time, petrified like figures in ancient Pompeii.

"We were in a bad situation, Luchs and I, and at the time, we didn't know how bad it was", the woman reports. The situation suggests she may be the last human being left alive after an unfathomable apocalypse. After a terrifying nightmare in which she dreams the wall has encircled the lodge and encased her within, she rises and heads out to survey the valley. She and Luchs encounter a cow, which she names Bella. Soon after that, a stray grey cat joins the growing family. Later still, Bella gives birth to a bullock and the cat to a fluffy kitten, which the woman calls Pearl. Pearl is claimed by foxes, or by the foehn (the humid wind that sweeps the leeward sides of Alpine mountains), but her death brings the woman closer to understanding, of herself and the natural world. "A long-haired white cat, in the middle of the forest, is condemned to early death. She didn't have a chance." During her first winter, she takes aim at a foraging fox but doesn't shoot: "The only creature in the forest that can really do right and wrong is me. And I alone can show mercy. Sometimes I wish the burden of decision-making didn't lie with me. But I am a human being... only death can free me from that".

Despite Pearl's untimely death, the animals are indispensable allies in the woman's stoic struggle for physical and spiritual survival. As surely as the deer she hunts, the tools she finds, the hay she harvests, and the food she cultivates, her companions keep her alive. As she fights loneliness and loss, despair and madness, she is forced to face, for the first time, fundamental questions about the essence of existence. Is individualism an existential trap? What is it to be human? What is our relationship to the natural world? Pölsler's gently immersive, calmly contemplative film offers respite from life's rush and provides us with space to meditate on life's meaning.

The Wall is a muted critique of consumerism and a delicate poem in praise of nature, a challenge to violence and patriarchy, an encomium to peace and life-giving femininity, a meditation on time, an observation on the differences and similarities between animals and humans, and a timeless minor masterpiece. This is a film as wary of extraneous plot as it is unafraid of big ideas. Nothing much happens, apart from everything: birth and death, pain and joy, atrophy and rebirth. Nothing feels forced: each moment and creature, great and small, is allowed to breath freely in the film. Although trapped in a circumscribed world, the woman explores the confines of her spacious prison and finds a summertime lease of life above the lodge in the Alm, a mountaintop haven of sweet-smelling herbs, lush pasture and breathtaking views. She moves there with her family of animals and finds something like happiness, a certain contentment that comes from feeling part of a greater whole. Unfortunately, her trials are not over. The film takes a tragically violent turn as the film reaches its climax and the woman must dig deep within, once again, to find cause to continue.

Everything about The Wall speaks of Pölsler's patience, his love of nature and Haushofer's book, and the dedication of his cast and crew. Pölsler grew up in a loving family, on an isolated farm on the Kreuzberg, a mountain in Austria's Salzkammergut region. His appreciation of the elemental, ethereal beauty of the local landscape is evident in his restrained, respectful treatment of the great outdoors. The rhythms of nature flow through his film just as they punctuate Haushofer's novel. Pölsler used nine master cinematographers in order to film, largely in the Gosau Valley, over three years and several seasons. Their cameras catch the misty moisture of the foehn and the sun-drenched crystal-clarity of the Alm, the red-dappled hazes of autumn and the snow bright white of winter. The results they achieve are as gorgeous as the landscapes they filmed.

Pölsler first fell in love with Marlen Haushofer's novel 25 years ago, but he had to wait for 20 years to acquire the rights. He then worked for several years on the script, no doubt nervously aware that adapting a book so perennially popular in the German-speaking world was tantamount to treading on sacred ground. Among the first challenges he faced when adapting the book was how to represent the wall, if at all. Michael Haneke suggested total silence, but Pölsler and his sound designers opted for a low electromagnetic bass thrum, which rises and falls in volume as the woman approaches or thinks about the wall. Throughout the film an ambient soundtrack does its work discreetly, sitting comfortably alongside the cawing of crows, the whistle of winds, and the creak of cold in the trees.

At this point, criticism awakes: one can't help thinking that the Bach partitas threaded through the film, elegant though they are, might have been pared back in order that silence and nature be allowed to speak. Perfectionist that he is, Pölsler has acknowledged as much himself. In order to complete No Greater Love (2010), his documentary on an order of Carmelite nuns in London's Notting Hill, Michael Whyte displayed the same kind of impressive patience displayed by Pölsler, a patience typical of the practitioners of slow cinema and their audiences. Whyte petitioned for ten years for access to the order. In the film one of the nuns says, "Silence becomes like music, there is a grace to it". Philip Gröning waited for sixteen years before being granted permission to begin his documentary Die Große Stille / Into Great Silence (2005), about a silent order of Carthusian monks based in the French Alps. Patience is indeed a virtue. Pölsler honours the spirit of Haushofer's novel by considering the spiritual without once leaning on mention of God.

The painstaking attention to detail evident in the film's cinematography and sound is equally evident in Pölsler's expert treatment of Haushofer's novel and his loving handling of the animals in the film. Groucho Marx joked that, "Outside a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read". In The Wall it is not books, and definitely not diamonds, that are a woman's best friend, but her dog. Pölsler says: "I wanted Luchs to develop invisible connection with Martina Gedeck". With much help from her, he did. He began work with Luchs' brother, but that dog refused to be trained, so his fraternal understudy stepped in. Pölsler says jokingly: "When I got to the end of my tether with my canine actor's skills, my last argument was liver sausage spread. Perhaps, in future, I should keep some liver pâté up my sleeve for my actors". As he will be aware, an actress of Martina Gedeck's integrity, depth and dedication needs no buttering up with pâté to give of her best. In The Wall, she sizes up a demanding role and makes it memorably her own. Like the character she plays, Gedeck has guts, grace and stamina. Hers is a powerful performance of understated intelligence, self-effacing honesty and physical prowess. At one point, she even rolls up her sleeves to help Bella give birth. Even if the various elements of the film had not been so artfully executed, Gedeck's hard-earned, relaxed relationships with the animals, particularly with russet-coated Luchs, would have been sufficient to carry the film in itself.

Although best known for her roles in Florian Henckel v. Donnersmarck's  Das Leben der Anderen / The Lives of Others (2006) and Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhoff Complex (2008), Gedeck is no stranger to adaptation. Having appeared in Oskar Röhler's 2006 adaptation of Michel Houllebecq's Les Particules élémentaires (Atomised), she will soon be appearing on U.K. screens in Bille August's adaptation of Pascal Mercier's Nachtzug nach Lissabon (Night Train to Lisbon) and the remake of Rivette's adaptation of Diderot's La Religieuse (The Nun). Gedeck's intuitive understanding of Haushofer's novel is reflected in her pitch-perfect reading of the woman's report and a masterclass in the art of acting from within.

The Wall offers a meditative response to modern speed and to mainstream cinema's mind-numbing assault on our senses. With its long takes and slow pacing, its respect for nature and for cinema, it allows us to think through the profound questions it raises. Like Béla Tarr, if more gently, Pölsler defies Hollywood and provides an alternative to shrill, metallic movies that deafen us while strafing us with quick-fire images. The Wall, in seeking solace and wisdom in the natural world and the spiritual, responds to deep, if sublimated collective needs. It echoes Martin Luther King and Marlen Haushofer's call for a revolution of values and whispers a plea for a reappraisal of consumer societies. Pölsler's ineffably beautiful film does Haushofer copious honour. It stands as a healthy alternative to fast film culture. It is a delicious slice of slow cinema, a dish produced to more natural rhythms, seasoned with nourishing ideas and sustaining feeling.

Source: Jerry Whyte (

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