Your end-times fantasy most likely says a lot about you. Adherents to the Left Behind eschatology must at some level relish the notion of everyone who doesn’t believe what they believe facing holy wrath, and what eco-conscious citizen of the Earth hasn’t thought, uncharitably, of how satisfying it will be to see the looks on the faces of the Fox Nation faithful the day the Midwest is officially declared a desert? The tough-to-Google new film The Wall is more about a pausing of all things than the end of them, but it still stands in the tradition of personal, revealing apocalyptic storytelling. Like that Twilight Zone where Burgess Meredith welcomes the wrecking of the world so that he’ll have the chance to catch up on his reading, The Wall starts with a bit of isolationist daydreaming: A woman and her dog are holed up in a darling cabin high in the mountains of Austria. One day, out in the woods, she discovers an invisible wall separating her swath of this majesty from the cabin of her nearest neighbors. Those neighbors stand suspended in place, as if time has stopped for them but not for our walled-in protagonist. That wall—impenetrable and never explained—surrounds miles of peaks and forest from which the woman (Martina Gedeck) now must carve out subsistence.
From there, you could guess much of the story. There’s a return to nature, with meadows to plant, livestock to tend, and game to bring down. There’s the re-establishing of some kind of community, here made up of animals: her companion dog, Lynx; a couple of cats; a beauty of a cow who lumbers into her life like a Hunger Games gift purchased by the viewers in her district. And there’s the hint of a threat out there in those circumscribed woods, which lends a melancholy tension to the many scenes of the woman trudging along, dog trotting proudly beside her, through snow or wildflowers and indifferent time itself.
What’s surprising is what isn’t there: That preternatural will to live that is the birthright of most movie heroes. (Think of Tom Cruise in Oblivion, less a person than a life-will-find-a-way velociraptor.) Instead, the greatest suspense in The Wall isn’t how she will survive but why she will bother. The answer: those animals. What would they do without her there to harvest hay, to lead that cow to a pasture, to shelter that stupid white cat who wants to go out into a forest filled with predators? Her partnership with her family of critters grows so strong that at times, she says, she loses sight of the fact that she is a person and Lynx is a dog—the only time this survival story suggests that her life might be better this way.
She explains that in the film’s relentless voiceover. Even if you didn’t know this was based on a novel (Marlen Haushofer’s), you’d quickly suss it out. Gedeck narrates in full paragraphs, explaining every feeling, telling us about moments it might have been nice to see dramatized. As the days and seasons pass, she tells us, she develops the habit of chattering at Lynx as they go about their un-ending work. This we have to take her word for.
For all its stellar nature photography, its low hum of suspense, and Gedeck’s raw and affecting performance, the film often feels like an illustrated audiobook rather than narrative drama. The bustling stillness of nature, that chaotic calm of birds and leaves, is both the appeal and terror of this scenario, and director Julian Roman Pölsler too rarely has the patience to let us sink into it, to feel the isolation ourselves. Instead, we get a nature walk scored to a dramatic reading.
The woman pours much of herself into a diary she is keeping, from which she declaims tirelessly on the soundtrack. The manuscript of that diary gives the story its shape, a narrative trick that makes more sense in a novel than in a feature—since we’re watching her live rather than reading what she has written, why should our understanding of her experience be limited to the number of pages she happens to have in her cabin? This beautiful, sometimes haunting film is a bit too much like Burgess Meredith in that Twilight Zone: It seems like it would prefer to be reading a book.