The Wall

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

1 February

Alexander Selkirk rescued, 1709

On this day in 1709, a Scottish sailor named either Alexander Selkirk or Selcraig was rescued from an island in the South Pacific. But the model for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe wasn’t the victim of a shipwreck. In fact he’d asked the captain of the privateer (ie pirate) ship he was sailing on, the Cinque Ports, to leave him on the uninhabited island known as Más a Tierra in the Juan Fernández archipelago about 700km off the coast of Chile. Known since his youth as a quarrelsome sort, Selkirk had been loudly protesting against the state of the leaky vessel and had gone so far as to say that he’d rather be left on the island than go any further on the boat. The captain of the Cinque Ports, taking him at his word, left him there. He was there for four years and four months, living off wild goats and abundant fruit and vegetables, evading capture twice when Spanish ships landed, fashioning new clothes out of goat skins when his own clothes wore out (his father had been a tanner, so that knowledge came in handy). He also built two shelters – one for sleeping, one for cooking – and tamed wild cats to keep him safe from the marauding rats. When the he was finally rescued by William Dampier, in whose convoy he had originally sailed, Selkirk’s physical and mental condition amazed Dampier, who made him second mate. Selkirk returned with a vengeance to life as a privateer and discovered when he returned to his home country in 1711 that he was famous.

The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

A woman who has probably been spending a quiet weekend away from the hustle of modern life in a secluded valley in Austria gets ready to return to the daily grind when, bang, she walks into what seems to be an invisible wall. As she tries to work out what it is, we are trying to work out what sort of film we’re watching. Sci-fi? No explanation is ever given. Instead we watch as a 21st century woman with polypropylene walking gear, a solid Mercedes and very little else is reintroduced to a different sort of existence as one day peels into the next, then becomes a week, a month and so on. She is utterly alone and at first does what we all might do. She patrols the perimeter of the wall, trying to call out to people she can see through it, but they are frozen in time. She drives her car into the wall, which gets her nothing except a totalled vehicle. And, gradually, she starts to adapt. It’s a Robinson Crusoe story, in short, with Martina Gedeck playing the castaway, narrating in voiceover from a position some considerable time in the future how she learnt a, b and c. If you’ve ever seen the French 1960s TV series starring Robert Hoffmann as Crusoe, The Wall will strike you as familiar, particularly its voiceover – almost godlike in its calm, philosophical, omniscient-narrator style. This is a remarkably simple film with a powerful emotional tug that asks us quite simply to connect with this ill-prepared woman, to follow her on her journey (as we also did with Tom Hanks in the most interesting section of Cast Away) from jeopardy to self-sufficiency both physical and emotional – the domestication of animals, her befriending of a crow, a cow, a dog, a cat. Gedeck’s calm, almost poetic reading of what must be this woman’s (we don’t learn her name) journal makes it the perfect film for students of German, the pristine shots of the savage beautiful landscape will have the Austrian Tourist Board handing out copies of the DVD and the one-woman performance as a whole is a thing of magical restraint. I have a funny feeling this film, which was almost entirely disregarded film in English-speaking countries, is going to have a long tail.

Why Watch?

  • Robinson Crusoe reinvented
  • The cinematography, clear as a mountain stream
  • The performance by Gedeck, best known for The Lives of Others
  • The antithesis of an action movie

The Wall – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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