A talented business consultant specialized in saving companies from bankruptcy through drastic measures has a harder time keeping her private life from going under in The Ground Beneath My Feet (Der boden unter den fuessen), the striking fourth feature from Austrian director Marie Kreutzer (The Fatherless).
This handsomely staged and impressively acted feature starts off as a coolly detached observational film about Lola, a thirtyish businesswoman whose entire m.o. is based on coldly calculating costs and facts without letting her feelings interfere — as she suggests to a single mother who risks being laid off. But her responsibility for her older sister, who is mentally ill and suspects she is being treated and held against her will, and Lola’s complicated relationship with her boss-cum-lover, inevitably start to cause hairline fractures in the protagonist’s impeccably groomed facade.
An impressively controlled feature about the messy nature of contemporary life.
This is at once an accessible art house drama about Lola’s emotionally frayed sisterly and amorous ties and a clinically observed portrait of a 21st-century woman trying to stay afloat in a ruthlessly profit-oriented economy where feelings are the enemy of efficiency. These two lives are, of course, mutually incompatible for Lola, though Kreutzer has done a superb job of fusing them into a complex yet tonally coherent work that should be a solid seller for sales agent Picture Tree International, especially in Europe. The Ground Beneath My Feet will be released in Austria in late March and in Germany in May.
Lola (Valerie Pachner) isn’t afraid to pull a “48” every now and again at work, a 48-hour shift without any sleep. Her colleagues, all also as young and driven as her, don’t seem at all surprised by their co-worker’s dedication to her job, especially because they know she’s single and an orphan, without any family to look after or even just hang out with. The truth, however, is a little more complex, as she’s actually the legal guardian of her 40-year-old half-sibling, Conny (Pia Hierzegger), who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and who has suicidal tendencies, a fact Lola tries to deny (“She was dopey and had a dosage problem,” she tells herself when Conny has swallowed 120 pills and ends up in the hospital).
Further complicating Lola’s care for Conny is the fact that her work mostly takes her to Germany, even though she lives in the Austrian capital, Vienna. When the film opens, she’s involved in trying to save a company in Rostock, on the Baltic Sea — about as far from Austria as one can be in Germany. Since no one is aware of her family situation and the attention her sister requires at the most inconvenient times, she has to disappear for long unexplained phone calls and meetings “at the airport,” where prospective clients are supposedly between flights (it has to be noted that Rostock Airport isn’t exactly a European transfer hub, though her colleagues are either too busy to notice or simply don’t care).
Kreutzer, who also wrote the screenplay, does a deft job of suggesting how Lola tries but increasingly fails to keep her professional and private lives separate, even though her personal life is in one country and her professional one in another. Troubling the waters even more is Lola’s relationship with her immediate superior Elise (Mavie Hoerbiger), though the two women seem more interested in physical rather than emotional closeness, with even Elise initially buying Lola’s “orphan” routine. In the dialogues, Kreutzer drops hints that suggest something about the many contradictions in Lola’s life. For example, the consultant tells herself and the doctors that her sister isn’t suicidal — which would be a much more convenient reality for Lola — but the first thing she asks a doctor when he unexpectedly calls is, “Is she dead?,” which betrays what she’s really thinking.
Similarly, the odd relationship between Lola and Elise, which they have to keep a secret from their colleagues, becomes more multifaceted and fascinating when Elise finally does find out about Conny. Instead of simply rejecting Lola for lying to her or giving her the unconditional moral support she would need, Elise turns inwards. Could the affliction be something that runs in the family? Or, even if that’s not the case, can Lola still deliver the necessary 48s that the job requires? Elise, who needs to make a decision about whom to promote from her team, is then faced with the impossible intersection of her love and professional lives as well in a kind negative image of her lover and member of staff.
In the end, though,The Ground Beneath My Feet is very much a portrait of one woman, and Pachner shines in her first collaboration with Kreutzer. The Austrian actress recently caught people’s attention in the biopic Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden and was also cast in Terrence Malick’s upcoming Radegund, and it’s easy to see why, as every internal tug-of-war between opposing feelings fully registers on her face.
Lola is always perfectly dressed for her job, with costume designer Monika Buttinger capturing the kind of soulless chic that defines much of today’s power wardrobes. Her blond ‘do is also always perfectly coiffed, but it does have much darker roots, which suggests not only how her professional appearance is really just a semi-permanent mask but also how, even though she might try to hide it, she’s clearly related to her half-sister, also a brunette.
Kreutzer and her regular cinematographer, Leena Koppe, do a fabulous job in terms of composition and mise-en-scene, with the horizontality of the widescreen images often broken up by the vertical figure of Lola, as if she’s disrupting a kind of harmony she struggles to be a part of. Editor Ulrike Kofler, also a Kreutzer regular, smoothly toggles between the different story strands while ensuring the tempo always matches Lola’s state of mind. Some of the subplots in the midsection aren’t fully resolved, which feels appropriate for this story about a woman whose state of mind has become one of such stressful overload that there are constantly small things that escape her attention. With this in mind, the narrative’s brutal ending isn’t all that shocking, as Lola needs a rude awakening so she can finally concentrate on herself rather than on the people and the work in front of her.
Production company: Novotny & Novotny Filmproduktion
Cast: Valerie Pachner, Pia Hierzegger, Mavie Hoerbiger, Michelle Barthel, Marc Benjamin, Axel Sichrovsky, Dominic Marcus Singer, Meo Wulf
Writer-director: Marie Kreutzer
Producers: Alexander Glehr, Franz Novotny
Director of photography: Leena Koppe
Production designer: Martin Reiter
Costume designer: Monika Buttinger
Editor: Ulrike Kofler
Music: Kyrre Kvam
Casting: Rita Waszilovics
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Picture Tree International
In German, English