For a movie adapted from a book written in 1963, The Wall has unfortunate timing. Its basic scenario, unique at the time of publication, will now inevitably be seen as similar to Under The Dome, Stephen King’s 2009 novel, which debuts as a miniseries later this month. (And Under The Dome was waggishly compared to The Simpsons Movie, so this idea is getting around.) Even more damaging, it’s being released theatrically in the U.S. immediately after J.C. Chandor’s remarkable shipwreck saga All Is Lost premièred at Cannes to wild acclaim. Both films are essentially single-character survival dramas, but they take diametrically opposed approaches to the idea of cinematic solitude, and The Wall’s nonstop internal monologue seems even more tiresomely literary when juxtaposed with All Is Lost’s stark silence.
The story from Austrian novelist Marlen Haushofer concerns an ordinary middle-aged woman (Martina Gedeck, a German actress best known in the States for The Lives Of Others) who awakens one morning while vacationing at a hunting lodge to find herself surrounded by a massive, invisible, impermeable wall. Everybody beyond the wall appears to be dead—at the very least, those she can see with binoculars are permanently frozen in place—and no explanation for its presence is ever offered. It’s just an unyielding fact separating this nameless woman from the rest of human society, if humanity even still exists. Finding comfort in some animals trapped with her—her friends’ dog (the friends had gone into town, never to return), a stray cat, a cow—she slowly comes to terms with her situation and constructs a new, agrarian life for herself, based on seasons she’d taken for granted in the city and a general understanding of nature she’d avoided.
Because the wall is never explained, its function is primarily symbolic. Once it’s been established, and the woman resigns herself to being trapped (the movie has almost no interest in exploring escape possibilities; Gedeck idly wonders whether the wall can be tunneled underneath at one point, but never attempts it), the science-fiction aspect disappears, and it’s more or less as if she’s been marooned on an unpopulated island in the middle of nowhere, à la Cast Away. But where Tom Hanks had to invent a companion to talk to, Gedeck doesn’t even speak aloud to her animals much. Instead, the film gives us her thoughts in wall-to-wall voiceover narration (which have been dubbed in English by Gedeck for the U.S. release)—long, verbose, philosophical passages that writer-director Julian Roman Pölsler presumably took directly from the novel. This endless blanket of disembodied words continually undermines both the spectacular views of Austria’s Salzkammergut and Gedeck’s steely physical performance, and also makes it nearly impossible to reflect in the moment on what the wall and its imposed isolation are meant to represent. (Depression, most likely.) Haushofer’s book may be a classic, but this is the least imaginative way of filming it imaginable, short of simply pointing the camera at a copy and rapidly flipping the pages.