Reviews and notes
2004 Toronto, Vancouver
2005 Sundance, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro
Maren Ade’s fantastic debut feature, winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, is a compactly-crafted, disarmingly-honest account of an idealistic young teacher drifting comically out of her professional and personal depths. That it was Ade’s thesis project as a student at the Munich Academy for Film and Television – completed when she was just 26 – makes its maturity and directorial aplomb all the more impressive. Melanie (played with cringe-worthy perfection by Eva Löbau) is a mousey twentysomething hoping for a fresh start in southwest Germany after being offered a teaching post mid-year. She begins to unravel when her progressive but undisciplined teaching style fails, her colleagues ostracize her, and her disastrous misreadings of a trendy neighbour’s social cues jeopardize a desperately sought-after female friendship. Shot on digital video in Ade’s hometown of Karlsruhe (where both her parents work as teachers), the film has a lo-fi, home-movie quality that adds to its intimacy, unease, and unexpectedly sublime denouement.
- The Cinematheque.
For roughly 75 minutes of its brisk 81-minute running time, The Forest for the Trees
is nothing more or less than a sharply-written, well-observed, DV-shot, small-scale character study of a 27-year-old teacher struggling to adapt to a new school in sleepy Karlsruhe. When we first see Melanie Proschle (Eva Lobau), she’s breaking up with Bernd (Achim Enchelmaier), her boyfriend of eight years, and departing for a different life in a different town. Like the corny joke about the cross-eyed teacher, Melanie has difficulty controlling her pupils – and her lack of social skills mean she has problems making new friends. Seemingly oblivious to the eager advances of her work-colleague Thorsten (Jan Neumann), she instead fixes upon her (comparatively) glamorous neighbour Tina (Daniela Holtz), who works in a fashion boutique. Melanie’s devious campaign to win Tina’s friendship seems to pay dividends – for a time…
If the film ended abruptly at the 75-minute mark, it would still be a “should-see” – accomplished and engrossing, though nothing too far out of the ordinary. Let’s say 7 out of 10. But the final three minutes (before the credits) are something else again – lifting The Forest for the Trees
firmly into the “must-see” category. Completely out of the blue, and with the simplest of means, Ade delivers a genuine coup de cinema
: thrillingly transcendent, disarmingly magical, transfiguring everything that’s gone before (the closest recent parallel is with another German picture, Christian Petzold’s The State I Am In
). This review will not reveal the details of these closing minutes, but will instead support Canadian critic Mark Peranson who, in a review which astutely anaylses the progress of Ade’s debut from student-project obscurity to globetrotting festival-fave, acclaims “the best ending of the year.”
At a stroke, Ade dissolves whatever objections we may have harboured to her subject-matter and approach: the haplessly square, dowdy, jittery Melanie has been scrutinised and dissected rather like a dysfunctional lab-rat, a species lacking some crucial chromosome and dimly aware of the deficiency. Lobau’s performance is, if anything, too convincing: there’s a genuinely uncomfortable awkwardness about the way Melanie instinctively does the worst possible thing in any given situation, a portion of which derives from a suspicion that Ade is being patronising and condescending to those less fortunate than herself. But while we may never actually like Melanie, or might even squirm in her company, as the film goes on we do see she’s deserving of sympathy – she’s clearly struggling to cope with the ending of her relationship with Bernd (though she herself ‘broke it off’), and is plopped down into a tricky set of pupils mid-way through a term. Melanie lacks support: both in her private and professional lives, and if nothing else she deserves some admiration for the way she so valiantly struggles to hold everything together. It’s ironic, then, that the moment when we really identify with and understand her character is the glorious moment at the end when she finally realises that, sometimes, you have to just – let – go.
- Neil Young, Film Lounge, 23rd November 2005.
Back to screening list