The thing about “unfilmable” novels is that almost always, sooner or later, somebody tries to film them. Even entirely experimental fictions, if they’re famous enough, can get the treatment eventually:
Nonetheless, it’s surprising the late Austrian author Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (a.k.a. Die Wand) took a full half-century to go from final print draft to the big screen, if only because the novel has maintained a significant following in German-speaking countries for nearly all that time.
It’s easy enough to see, however, why it might have stymied filmmakers before writer-director Julian Roman Pölsler finally took the plunge. The book is practically everything conventional narrative cinema recoils from: Basically a first-person, stream-of-consciousness monologue, with our heroine and a dog as the only real “characters,” little in the way of “action” and no explanation whatsoever of the fantastical event that causes her predicament. It’s at once doggedly realistic (in detailing her survival tactics), introspective and bizarre.
Over the years many have pondered its allegorical significance, with some of the more popular interpretations being that the inexplicable “wall” entrapping Haushofer’s nameless protagonist is a metaphor for depression and the ultimate isolation of human individuality. Its sci-fi concept has arguably inspired many another work. Here’s mashup of two relatively recent ones:
Pölsler’s well-received 2012 film closely follows the book in most respects, in particular using large chunks of its prose (ostensibly an account the heroine is writing of her travails, partly to avoid going mad) as voiceover narration. They provide a desperate, near-hopeless tenor well before we, or Martina Geswick as that character, discover in flashbacks what has befallen her. Things otherwise start innocuously enough: Geswick’s unnamed fortyish figure is off for a short holiday at the hunting lodge owned by her cousin and his wife in mountainous northern Austria. Her hosts decide to walk to the nearby village, leaving their guest (and hunting dog named Lynx) behind to relax.
But curiously they don’t return that evening, nor have they turned up the next morning. Deciding to investigate, woman and dog themselves begin walking toward town. But a pained yelp from Lynx, running ahead, is our heroine’s first tangible evidence that something unimaginable has happened. To her horror and initial disbelief, overnight “something invisible, smooth and cool” has surrounded the valley, forming an impenetrable wall within which she is seemingly the sole human captive. Later, trying to find any breaches in its expanse, she realizes that life on the other side of the wall has just, well, ceased: Nearby elderly cottagers are found suspended in mid-action, as if some cosmic clock had simply stopped amidst their routine domestic chores.
Are they dead? Has there been some kind of chemical-warfare catastrophe? If so, why does everything still look normal, with plant life and weather unaffected? Haushofer provides no answers, and Pölsler strips down her material even more. (In the book, the woman muses enough upon the past she’s now gradually “disengaging from” to reveal her status as a widow and mother to now-grown children; the film prefers to leave out such backstory, letting Gedeck’s intensely committed performance fill in the blanks through sheer power of presence.)
So The Wall becomes a very feminine, abstractly feminist sort of dystopian-future survival story, in which the emphasis is not on violence and predation (as in most equivalent male-written tales, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) but on the solitary struggle for self-preservation.
Adapting to the “new order” that’s been forced upon her, the woman learns to farm and hunt. She’s kept motivated (and kept company) by the small domesticated menagerie that accrues around her assumed authority: Not just the invaluable Lynx, but also a pregnant cow found separated from its herd, and a skittish house cat. Still, she’s driven by something more than simple curiosity to eventually explore the countryside farther than the daily needs of that mammalian brood allow. “The wall’s” borders block her path to civilization, yet extend high into the uninhabited mountains.
A longtime favorite in her native Germany, Gedeck really came to the attention of international audiences as the titular figure in 2002’s Mostly Martha, followed by such hits as The Lives of Others and The Baader Meinhof Complex, as well as occasional English-language films directed by the likes of Bille August and Robert De Niro. In Stefan Krohmer’s fascinating 2006 seriocomedy, Summer ’04, she is as a seemingly serene wife and mother testing a liberal family’s bounds of “free love.”
Her impressively self-effacing performance doesn’t beg sympathy, or resist the harder physical evidence of long-term social isolation, a rough diet and just plain aging. (For comical contrast, revisit the mixed bag of Anthony Minghella’s 2003 Cold Mountain adaptation, in which Nicole Kidman was never allowed to look anything but fussed-over-glamorous whilst farming in North Carolina during the Civil War.)
A first big-screen feature for Pölsler, hitherto better known for directing Austrian theater, opera and particularly TV, The Wall may be frustratingly ambiguous to some, but it’s compensatingly gorgeous. Shot in the Austrian Alps, its widescreen cinematography is credited to no less than six D.P.’s.
Presumably the results would have pleased Haushofer, for whom the novel was a defining work. (Even though it wasn’t until 1968, nearly six years after she’d painstakingly completed the last of several longhand drafts and two years before her cancer death at fifty, that it was published. It would take another couple decades before it was translated into English.) It won her the prestigious Arthur Schnitzler Prize as well as, eventually, the acclaim of Doris Lessing and other international literati.