The Police Officer’s Wife (2013)
Directed by: Philip Gröning.
Written by: Philip Gröning.
Starring: Alexandra Finder (Christine Perkinger), David Zimmerschied (Uwe Perkinger), Pia and Chiara Kleemann (Clara Perkinger).
It is impossible to be entertained by a film like The Police Officer’s Wife. It is a nearly three hour film, separated into 59 different chapters – ranging from under 30 seconds, to about 10 minutes – complete with title cards announcing the beginning and end of each chapter. The film documents a woman’s long, slow implosion due to the violence she endures from her police officer husband – and the great lengths she goes to in an attempt to protect her young daughter from the truth. The film is mainly made up of long, static shots that observe the scenes as they play out in agonizing real time. This makes for a long, bleak viewing – where even the few scenes of joy are undercut by the realization of what else is happening. And yet, while it took the movie a long time to put me under its spell – it eventually does accomplish that goal. By the time the movie ended, I was surprised by how involved I was by the film.
The film was directed by Philip Groning – whose last film was the documentary Into Great Silence (2005) about life inside a monastery. That film generated great reviews – but somehow I missed it seeing back then. In The Police Officer’s Wife he brings a documentary approach to fiction filmmaking. He observes this family going about their daily routines – including Uwe’s (David Zimmershied) exacting routine when he comes home after work every day. His wife, Christine (Alexandra Finder) spends all of her time with their young daughter Clara (played by twins Pia and Chiara Kleemann). The play, dig in their garden, prepare dinner, etc. Basically, the first part of the movie is just about their domestic routines – contrasted with scenes of nature, and occasionally, the actions of an lonely old man (whose presence is never explained – but I think is fairly obvious, given the end of the movie). Gradually, Groning introduces violence into the equation – slowly and subtly at first, and seemingly unrelated to the family itself – a deer who is hit by a car while Uwe is at work, that forces him to take care of it, the daughter’s fascination with worms, etc.
If we know early on that Uwe likes thinks “just so”, and that something is not quite right between them – we actually get our first glimpse of just how serious things are in a one of the movie’s lighter scenes – a playful water fight between husband and wife, we first see the bruises of Christine’s body. These bruises will multiply and grow more severe throughout the movie. As the movie continues, there are fewer calm scenes, and more disturbing ones. Christine slowly sinks into herself – her eyes seem to recede into her head, she lets her hygiene suffer to the point where Clara complains that “Mommy stinks” – something that Uwe thinks is hilarious. But the further she seems to fall, the angrier Uwe gets – his outbreaks get worse and more frequent and violent. Clara is left to her own devices more and more often, and she starts to relate more to Uwe than the Christine – which just makes matters worse. Things will eventually explode – in chapter 54, the longest (or at least feels the longest) which is one of the most riveting and disturbing scenes you will ever see.
I am glad I saw The Police Officer’s Wife at TIFF. Had I tried to watch the film at home, I’m not sure I would have made it past an hour. The chapters, the title cards, the slow pace seemed to be a long, slow slog to nowhere for the first third of the movie. But a strange thing happened as I watched the movie – I feel into its rhythm. Not unlike Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman (although that film is even more repetitious – by design, to make the title characters explosion at the more shocking), The Police Officer’s Wife has a pace all of its own, and you either fall under its spell, or else you grow bored and restless, and eventually just walk out. I cannot imagine ever watching the film again – it is such a painful film in so many ways, that watching it a second time would be torture. And yet, I cannot help but admire the film. Yes, the film is too long and too slow – and the unnecessary chapters and the title cards make things seem even longer than it otherwise might, and reeks of a director imposing himself on the material, and distances the audience for the action. Yet, the chapter headings are also somewhat reassuring – we know whatever we are seeing will eventually end, and we will be given at least a brief respite from the pain on the screen.
The performances by the three leads – who are the only people who have a meaningful in the movie – are about as good as the movie allows. Zimmerschied’s ordinary appearance makes his outbreaks all the more painful. Finder’s physical transformation is impressive, but her subtle quiet performance is better, and more striking, that just that. The Kleeman twins play Clara as a typical little girl – but one who sees more than she should. Occasionally, one or more members of the family will come on screen and look directly into the camera, and sing some nursery rhymes, which have never sounded disturbing than they do here.
The Police Officer’s Wife is precisely the film that Groning wanted to make. I cannot imagine what the audience of the film is going to be. Any foreign film with such disturbing subject matter is a tough sell – and the three hour running time doesn’t help matters. I admire Groning for making the movie, knowing that very few people would ever want to watch his film. So, did I like The Police Officer’s wife, or not? Or more importantly should you see the film? I have to admit it – I do think Groning has made a powerful film – but I cannot think of too many people who want to put themselves through the movie. But if you’ve made it this far into the review, you probably already know If they movie is for you or not. If after reading everything I’ve written, you still think it’s something you`d like – than you`re probably right. For most though, The Police`s Officer`s wife would simply be a too slow, too creepy, too painful to watch.
Note: I saw this film at TIFF 2013, and at this point, I have to believe it’s not going to get a proper released in North America – so I decided to publish the review I wrote then anyway.