Dir:Maren Ade. Ger. 2003. 81mins
A sober psychological drama about a novice teacher in meltdown, Maren Ade'slow-budget The Forest for the Trees builds slowly but assuredly toproduce an unsettling final kick. An introverted but commanding lead performanceby Eva Lobau should put her name on the map, as well as that of debut featuremaker Maren Ade, whose graduation film this is.
Acrisp but functional digital look, plus a bracingly concise running time, willlimit the film's commercial prospects, but it should continue to enjoy ahealthy festival life (it competes in Sundance's World Cinema sidebar thisweek). It also deserves wide exposure on television, where it arguably mightfunction even better than on the big screen.
Lobauplays Melanie, a young, inexperienced teacher who moves to Karlsruhe to take upa new post in a school. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, she promises hercolleagues to bring a "breath of fresh air", but it soon becomes evident thatMelanie is way out of her depth.
Incapableof handling her disruptive classes, and unable to make any connection with theother teachers, she nevertheless refuses to share her problems with anyone,while consistently rebuffing friendly advances from Thorsten (Neumann), agood-natured colleague who appears to have suffered, and survived, similar woesat work.
Instead,Melanie single-mindedly pursues the friendship of her neighbour, clothes shopassistant Tina (Holtz), whom she first spots out of her window. A closerelationship with the more glamorous, confident woman seems to be in theoffing, but it is inevitably sabotaged by Melanie's gauche insistence andobsessive behaviour, which starts off voyeuristic and progresses towardssomething very close to stalking.
AsMelanie's isolation becomes total, her final breakdown is conveyed in awordless, unsettlingly ambivalent, closing sequence that carries all the moreof a bravura punch for being so audaciously understated.
Atonce a picture of psychological collapse and a realist study of workplacepressures, Maren's film slyly wrongfoots the audience, leading us at first toexpect a gentle comedy of social gaffes, before gradually cranking up the paceand making Melanie's crisis increasingly painful to watch.
Lobaucarries the film as the mousy, clumsily-coiffed, child-like Melanie, awkwardlysmiling through her humiliations, and stubbornly refusing to recognise that sheis her own worst enemy. Strong support comes from Holtz as Tina, oscillatingbetween impatience and bemused tolerance, and from Neumann as the clumsy butsympathetic Thorsten.
Thefilm also benefits from the energetic - and anything but ingratiating -presence of the variously-aged children in Melanie's classes. Shooting in areal school, and building improvisation into a tightly scripted piece, Marenachieves a vivid and entirely uncontrived feel in those scenes in whichMelanie's pupils casually make mincemeat of her.
CinematographerNikolai von Graevenitz - whose documentary experience informs the film - shootscrisply and economically, with a touch more expressionist looseness as Melaniecracks up, while to-the-point editing boosts the narrative drive. Thisinsightful, affecting and tightly realised piece bodes well for Maren's futurecareer - but is also the worst possible advert for the teaching profession.
Int'l sales: Komplizen Film
Cine: Nikolaivon Graevenitz
Prod des: Claudia Scholzel
Music: InaSiefert, Nellis Du Biel
Main cast: Eva Lobau, Daniela Holtz, Jan Neumann, Ilona C Schulz, Robert Schupp