UPDATE, 11/30/16: Maren Ade‘s The Forest for the Trees plays tonight at the Los Angeles Goethe-Institut; Everyone Else plays there on 12/7, as a warm-up for Ade‘s Toni Erdmann on 12/14. Complete info here.
A standout talent in the so-called “Berlin School” (i.e., contemporary German indies) is writer-director Maren Ade, who with just two features has distinguished herself as a clinician — or should I say a connoisseur? — of embarrassment.
Her 2003 debut The Forest for the Trees (Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen) is a study of Melanie (Eva Löbau), a well-meaning but disastrously maladroit young schoolteacher who relocates to Karlsruhe and proceeds to make a mess of her life. Unable to control the rowdy ninth graders in her charge (both the kids and their parents recognize a pushover when they see one), and increasingly needy, then desperate in her social life, Melanie goes from bright-eyed go-getter to basket case in the succinct running time of 80 minutes.
If you can get past the shockingly drab visuals — shot on tape, apparently to resemble a home video as closely as possible — the movie will go to work on you. In its own way, it’s as uncomfortable to watch as anything by Michael Haneke.
The tone is pitilessly deadpan as Melanie’s initial gaffes escalate into missteps that are excruciatingly embarrassing to watch. Eventually adulthood itself starts to seem too much for her; she spirals down into emotional and mental disorder. (Young people ill prepared to become adults is one of the few themes that appears across the work of Berlin School directors who otherwise have little in common. A bellwether for 21st-century society, perhaps.)
Melanie’s struggles are made even more intimate and uncomfortable by the cheap-looking video, which blurs any sense the viewer might have of watching a professional release made by performers and craftsmen. To moviegoers accustomed to thinking of movies as entertainment, The Forest for the Trees may well come across as perverse. But to its credit, the film never feels mean — it’s too understated and plausible for that. Director Ade ends on an unsettling tableau that captures just how incapable Melanie is of navigating her own life, and we’re left to consider how unnervingly shaky the foundations of a ‘successful’ life might be.
Somewhat easier to take and far more visually rewarding is Ade’s second feature Everyone Else (a.k.a. Alle Anderen, 2009), the rare Berlin School film that found distribution and good reviews in the U.S. This time Ade puts a couple under her microscope: lanky blonde architect Chris (Lars Edinger) and his girlfriend Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr), on holiday in a cushy family villa on the coast of Sardinia.
Not much happens in the two hours of Everyone Else, other than the meticulously observed erosion of Chris and Gitti’s relationship. They haven’t been together long, but they’re cozily hermetic as a couple. Smug Chris is on the brink of 30 and the verge of making a name for himself as an architect; there’s a suggestion that he regards his relationship with Gitti as something that can be easily shed as he comes into professional success. Gitti has a different view of things, naturally.
If you watch Everyone Else with an audience in a theater, it’s possible the movie plays as dry comedy. Watch by yourself and it may play as a less comfortable experiment, one that asks, how long can you stand to be cooped up with these people? Chris and Gitti love each other (maybe, still), but they also can’t help getting on each other’s nerves, and they may have that effect on you, too. Ade delves into the tiny intimacies of a relationship in a way that feature filmmakers rarely do. We watch as Chris and Gitti needle and provoke each other, followed by the cutesy gambits and routines they deploy to restore a semblance of affection between them.
It’s all minutely observed, and it’s an understatement to say that actors Edinger and Minichmayr are entirely convincing as a couple whose extended vacation is a kind of joint solitary confinement. As unsparing a view of coupledom as Everyone Else is, it never tips into misanthropy.
The movie could have used more stringent editing, but Ade may have felt that duration was key to the sense of a claustrophobic, slowly fraying relationship here. Her film could be asking whether to be shacked up with the one person who truly understands you best isn’t both the key to happiness and a customized torture chamber as well. You might laugh, you might wince. Either way, the film will likely make your skin crawl.
Maren Ade’s third feature Toni Erdmann opens in the U.S. on December 25th, 2016.