Friday, January 31, 2020

Classic Movie Review: The Forest for the Trees (2003)

The Forest for the Trees (2003) 
Directed by: Maren Ade.
Written by: Maren Ade.
Starring: Eva Löbau (Melanie Pröschle), Daniela Holtz (Tina Schaffner), Jan Neumann (Thorsten Rehm), Ilona Schulz (Frau Sussmann), Robert Schupp (Tobias), Heinz Röser-Dümmig (Lutger Reinhardt), Martina Eckrich (Renate Pföhler), Nina Fiedler (Bine), Hans-Rüdiger Kucich (Gerd Postweiler), Ruth Köppler (Elvira Fischer-Walter), Achim Enchelmaier (Bernd), Monika Hirschle (Melanies Mutter), Volker Jeck (Melanies Vater).
It’s fairly remarkable that The Forest for the Trees is not only Maren Ade’s debut film – but also a student film. The evidence at the time was clear that she would go onto become a master – as she has with her two subsequent films, Everybody Else and Toni Erdman (and it’s a shame that there’s only been two, with such huge gaps between all of her films). And people immediately recognized that talent – the film went to be featured at TIFF and Sundance, and thankfully, with the success of Ade’s two other films, is now available for us all to see – and marvel about how she seemed to emerge right from the start a fully formed artist.
The protagonist of The Forest for the Trees is the painfully awkward and idealist Melanie (a great Eva Löbau) – a new teacher, who moves to a new city, breaks up with her boyfriend, and takes a job teaching a troubled class. She is convinced that she’ll be able to reach them with her “new teaching methods”. At the same time, she tries to make new friends – all of the teachers, except for one, pretty much ignore her – and are mean behind her back. She does make friends – kind of – with her neighbor across the street, whose apartment she can see into. This is Tina (Daniela Holtz) – who seems happy enough to spend time with Melanie if there is nothing better to do – but frequently forgets to call when she says she will, or invite her places, etc. Melanie keeps trying – and its painful to watch her try and integrate herself in the life of someone who clearly just doesn’t care about her that much. Painful to see her try and interact with her friends, or her on again/off again boyfriend. And its equally painful to watch her in class, try and reach these kids who sense blood in the water, and go for her immediately. The Forest for the Trees is a movie designed to make you squirm and be uncomfortable from beginning to (almost) the end.
The key for The Forest for the Trees working as well as it does is that Melanie is both sympathetic and annoying. If she was just annoying, then the film may flip into obnoxious territory – punching down at the character. But Melanie, for the most part, seems like a nice person – that she really does care for those kids, that the talk behind her back really does hurt her, that she really is looking out for Tina’s best interests – and wants to be her friend. She is just utterly, completely clueless at reading the social clues she is being given. You can both understand why the others view her the way they do – it is annoying to be a veteran teacher, and have someone come in and imply you are bad at your job. It is annoying when an acquaintance – which is really what she is to Tina – oversteps their bounds, and think you are closer than you want. And yet, she is so guileless, and these slights hurt so much that you cringe because it’s so awkward, but also because a character you like is being repeatedly hit.
And then, there is the ending of the film. As you watch the film – and its short, at just over 80 minutes – you wonder how Ade is going to end it. And Ade finds the most unexpected, and yet perfect way to end the film – an ending that is freeing for Melanie – and for us in its strange, surreal way. Ade has become one of the best filmmakers in the world – I really wish she would work more often – but as this film shows, she is brilliant right from the start.

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