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What's going on in The Wall

Martina Gedeck stars as a woman trapped by an invisible barrier.

The Wall

The Wall

Based on an Austrian novel by Marlen Haushofer, The Wall tells the story of an unnamed woman (Martina Gedeck) vacationing with friends in an Alpine hunting lodge that's situated deep in a secluded valley. One evening her companions decide to visit a nearby village for some dinner; when they haven't returned by morning, she heads toward the village to find them, only to learn she's surrounded on all sides by an invisible, impenetrable wall, cut off from the world outside the valley. With a pair of binoculars she discerns that everyone beyond the wall is frozen in place. Presumably the last person left alive, she resolves to lead a life of solitude, her trusty dog her only companion.

This grandiloquent premise may promise hokey sci-fi—Stephen King's recent book-turned-TV-series Under the Dome follows a similar idea—but director Julian Roman Pölsler shows commendable narrative restraint. Following Haushofer's example, he never reveals the origin of the wall. But he doesn't need to: it's perfectly effective as a bewildering storytelling device—Chekhov's gun unused. Its ambiguity is the film's primary conceit as well as its grand message. Ultimately there's no need to explain: as far as Pölsler is concerned, what's important is that she recognizes and subsequently accepts the situation, demonstrating fortitude and strength of will amid dire circumstances.

Like some Waldenesque episode of The Twilight Zone, The Wall turns on a cryptic twist of fate that forces a lone character to lead a solitary, transcendental existence, forging a communal relationship with the natural surroundings and gradually embracing her secluded state. A mysterious and often lyrical character study, the film transcends its potentially gimmicky concept by reducing all matters of story and plot to a single purpose: the woman's meditative isolation.

Pölsler treats the material with great conviction, though he seems less than confident in his ability to translate it to the screen. Incessant voice-over fills in the woman's thoughts, devaluing not only some stunning shots of Austrian mountainside vistas but also Gedeck's formidable performance (weirdly, she delivers the voice-over in English though the character dialogue is all in German). It's almost as if Pölsler didn't trust the images to speak for themselves, so he borrowed heavily from Haushofer's text, whose eloquent but garrulous prose doesn't exactly fit with the minimalist plot line. Thankfully, the woman's inner monologue doesn't divulge any expository, unnecessary, or uninteresting information; her words, recondite and haunting, are fully in line with the film's themes of solidarity and introspection. Pölsler may fail to follow the old storytelling adage "show, don't tell," but at least what he tells us is worth hearing.

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