Forest for the Trees, The (German Film)
Original Title: Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen
Release Date: October 22, 2003
Director: Maren Ade
Screenplay: Maren Ade
Cast: Eva Löbau, Daniela Holtz, Jan Neumann, Ilona Schulz, Robert Schupp, Heinz Röser-Dümmig
Imagine if a film consisted almost entirely of moments as disconcerting, and some would say as violent, as the “egg scene” in Michael Haneke’s original Funny Games (1997). That would be one way to describe Maren Ade’s striking, razor-sharp debut feature, The Forest for the Trees, an acute and absorbing study of a young woman who gradually deteriorates both emotionally and psychologically.
But where Haneke’s cold, calculating film winkingly, yet inevitably, builds up to violence and chaos, this compassionate yet thoroughly unsentimental portrait ultimately finds a gesture perched somewhere between the immanent and the transcendent. And Ade accomplishes this with the effortless grace of a seasoned veteran.
Löbau plays Melanie Pröschle, a twenty-something schoolteacher who leaves her rural home and a longtime boyfriend to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. After landing a job in a suburban school, Melanie slowly realizes that things are not what she expected or wanted them to be. She not only has to deal with advances from a colleague, but her enthusiastic new teaching methods aren’t honored by teachers and students alike, partly because she came in as a substitute halfway through the school term.
Melanie’s situation doesn’t turn out to be much better on the domestic front. She tries to befriend her neighbor, Tina (Holtz), who works at a boutique, but her intrusive methods and a lack of understanding of urban social codes gradually cause her to become alienated, not only from others but also from herself and reality in general. According to Ade, Melanie’s Swabian accent, apparently a source of humor for German speakers, only makes matters worse.
Although it would be going too far to call her a masochist, some may be able to detect Melanie’s aggressively needy side, offered perhaps as a byproduct of her increasing loneliness. In addition, Melanie’s interactions with Tina suggest a person who almost wants, expects, the other to fail to hold up their end of the bargain. This is partly what complicates her. Instead of offering it as a critique, Ade presents it as just another trait that Melanie is insufferably unaware of.
Melanie also, unwittingly, ends up treating that sympathetic, possibly equally lonely colleague, who would like to have more than just a professional relationship with her, in the same manner that others treat her. Tsai Ming-liang might be the only other contemporary filmmaker who has depicted urban alienation and its residual effects with such vivid strokes. And, like Tsai, Ade is unique in being able to tease out the humor from the most uncomfortable of situations. Watch this film the second time, if you can stand it, and you will likely know what I mean.
Ade, who was 27 at the time, mostly shot The Forest for the Trees in her hometown of Karlsruhe, with guidance from her parents who are both schoolteachers. The film, which was her graduation project for Munich’s film school, proves that she had developed a keen sense of the day-to-day pressures associated with the profession before she went forward. The documentary realism of the school scenes further bear that out, which Ade has also credited to the work of her cinematographer, Nikolai von Graevenitz.
This film, however, would not be same without Löbau— winner of the Best Actress prize at the prestigious Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema in 2005—whose small, subtle mannerisms are capable enough to cause a ripple effect, yet they never detach her from exhibiting her inner humanity. Even if Ade is not breaking any new cinematic ground here, her vision still impresses, ultimately because she somehow bypasses the usual pitfalls and finds a way to leave Melanie, and us, on a high.