The Forest for the Trees, by German filmmaker Maren Ade, is one of the deepest depictions of loneliness on-screen. After serving as a television producer and shooting two shorts, Ade made this first feature, based on her own screenplay, in 2003. A remarkable, unnerving work, it already exhibits some of her trademarks: complex psychology, a steadfast look at embarrassing situations, a mixture of melancholic and comic, and an utter refusal of sentimentality or, for that matter, redemption. If I find her films exhilarating, it is by way of their willingness to treat as honestly as possible the conflicted, intransigent, squeamish parts of human nature.
My first encounter with this filmmaker came when I saw her second feature, Everyone Else, in 2009. I was astonished by its boldness about heterosexual couples and their sexual and emotional hang-ups, their inability to go that last extra mile of surrendering to love. Her third feature, Toni Erdmann (2016), was a more boisterous, deliciously comic romp, establishing Ade as a favorite on the international film festival circuit. I was curious to catch up with her maiden effort, which never received a theatrical release in the U.S. but is now streaming on the Criterion Channel. I didn’t expect much, but sometimes these early features by auteurs, like Bertolucci’s The Grim Reaper or Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha, have rough glimmers that prefigure the sustained efforts to follow. In fact, The Forest for the Trees proved a fully accomplished artistic statement, no apologies necessary.
It focuses on Melanie (Eva Löbau), a twenty-seven-year-old woman who, when we first meet her, is leaving her boyfriend of eight years and moving to Karlsruhe to take up her first teaching job. Significantly, we are introduced to her in the process of jilting her longtime lover: since the rest of the film will show her being snubbed, we can’t see her as a pure victim. Melanie is moderately attractive, but her ex is rather goony-looking, and she probably thinks she deserves better.
Eager to make friends in her new environment, she proffers homemade schnapps to her neighbors, calling them a “housewarming gift” and then catching herself with the realization that the term is usually reserved for residents welcoming a newcomer, not the other way around. We will come to recognize this as her pattern: she initiates the “nice” gesture as though modeling it, expecting others to return it and being disappointed. The aggressiveness beneath this conventional display of manners is subtly implied, if hidden from Melanie. She introduces herself to the other teachers at school with food treats but ruins it by saying she’s been exposed to novel pedagogic methods and hopes they will welcome “a breath of fresh air.” This does not go down well with these burnt-out veterans, who look at her with stony resentment.
Your heart goes out to Melanie as she sets about trying to employ these innovative techniques, only to be met with rudeness, rowdiness, cruelty, and boredom. The children test the newcomer to the limit. One boy throws a carton of chocolate milk at her back, damaging the new jacket she’d bought in the hopes of looking more “professional.” She calls in the boy’s mother, a lynx-eyed blond who denies her son has done any such thing, and blames Melanie for not being able to control the class.
True, Melanie doesn’t seem able to summon the authority to keep the kids in order: she wants them to like her and have fun; she wants to be their pal. I saw this happening again and again during the open classroom era when I taught children: young teachers would strain to be non-authoritarian, only to find kids preferred old battle-axes who set limits and forced them to do the work. There is a movie subgenre about idealistic teachers who encounter troublesome students and win them over (Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase, Dangerous Minds): this is not one of them. Melanie never does get the hang of controlling her classes; her plot arc lies in a different direction.
She becomes fascinated by a neighbor across the way, the beautiful Tina (Daniela Holtz), who works in a boutique. Tina has the looks and style that Melanie covets: whether her preoccupation with this neighbor is driven solely by admiration or has a homoerotic component, whatever “romance” exists in the film has to do with Melanie courting Tina. She insists on doing favors for Tina, keeps inviting herself to hang out with her, and pries into her love life. Melanie is both generously helpful and nosily intrusive. Tina, for her part, does not entirely rebuff her: she wants to get rid of her before her staff party at the store, so she gives her a dress as a present. She forgets to show up for a date with Melanie, but then invites her to her birthday party. It’s important to recognize that Tina is not intentionally cruel: she just doesn’t need Melanie for a friend as much as Melanie needs her. Tina may have the upper hand in looks and an exciting life, but she would also like to act courteously to this needy neighbor. That is, until Melanie blows it by interfering in the complicated romance between Tina and her ex-boyfriend Tobias. When Tina discovers what Melanie has done, she shouts at her, “You’re not all there, are you? You just don’t get it, do you?”
Tina’s right. Melanie does not get “the forest for the trees.” She is so caught up in her version of herself as a kind, considerate person that she cannot see she was jealous of Tina’s relationship with Tobias. With her a one-dimensional take on human nature, she thinks she is always proceeding from good intentions, and the others are “assholes,” as she keeps muttering under her breath. She doesn’t grasp how she is constructing self-fulfilling prophecies that will lead to her being rejected. Her lack of confidence extends even to a potted plant (“Maybe it doesn’t like me”), and to horses at a farm: she can’t get some of them to eat from her hand. Such comic details show Ade having a little fun with her insecure, self-pitying character.
For much of the film, one’s sympathies are entirely with Melanie, as she gets battered around. I thought of Eric Rohmer’s Le rayon vert (The Green Ray), whose heroine is also somewhat of a pill though you root for her happiness. Rohmer is characteristically, gallantly sympathetic toward his female characters, whereas Ade seems less willing to give them a free pass. So we seesaw between our feeling sorry for Melanie in the face of her humiliations, and impatient with her self-defeating behavior.
There is one character, a male teacher named Thorsten (Jan Neumann), who is drawn to Melanie. Obviously he would like to date her, but he also wants to reassure her that she’s not the only one who had difficulties teaching their first year. Every time he tries to console her, she can’t take it and runs to the bathroom to sob. Is it because Thorsten is another dorky-looking guy, below her attractiveness pay scale, or because it hurts her pride too much to be seen in trouble? She is quick to lie whenever she might be caught looking pathetically needy: these lies suggest a more pleasant alternate reality unspooling constantly in her brain, in contrast to the bleaker present.
Finally she loses her grip: the story morphs from a normal twentysomething undergoing difficult adjustments to one having a mental breakdown. The ambiguous, magical-realist ending can be read two ways: either as suicidal or, by symbolically ceding control of the wheel, learning to be life’s untortured spectator.
Ironically, while Melanie can’t control her classroom, the film’s technique is supremely controlled. A low budget production, shot in handheld DV, the colors are somewhat muted, and there is little cinematic pizazz; no beauty for its own sake, everything is strictly functional; but then again, why would you want visual poetry to distract from Melanie’s drab circumstances? The framing is tight; no pictorial cutaway shots of the town or the surrounding landscape. Close-ups are given only to Melanie, underscoring her isolation. Eva Löbau’s extraordinary performance registers stoicism, hurt, disappointment, suppressed rage, and fake bonhomie in quick succession. Periodically being photographed in shadows as she spies on her neighbor only underscores her clouded perspective. In Melanie, we have one of the most poignant, complexly shaded characters in contemporary cinema.
The theme of loneliness may be universal, but there is also something very Germanic about the plot of a decent, repressed, socially awkward individual broken by an icy, indifferent world. The prototype goes back to Georg Büchner’s nineteenth-century play Wozzeck, through Berg’s opera of the same name and Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons. What is so unique in Ade’s version is the degree to which the protagonist is shown complicit in her own suffering. The result is an uneasy-making sort of comedy, exhilarating in its capacity to keep its audience off-balance.
The Forest for the Trees is playing on the Criterion Channel through May 31, 2020.