The Police Officer's Wife (Die Frau des Polizisten): Venice Review

"The Police Officer's Wife"
Fifty-nine chapters tell audiences something that could have also been said in 10 or 100 chapters.

German filmmaker Philip Groning looks at domestic violence.

VENICE, Italy – The titular protagonist of The Police Officer’s Wife is literally beaten into submission in Philip Groning’s long-winded, almost three-hour look at domestic abuse in provincial Germany. Unfortunately, most audiences will feel like they’ve been beaten into submission, too.

Divided into 59 scenes, each bookended by numbered ‘beginning of chapter...’ and ‘end of chapter...’ titles that slowly -- very slowly -- fade to black and that by themselves take up about 20 minutes of the running time, The Police Officer’s Wife accumulates short scenes from the life of a young policeman who often works the night shift and his stay-at-home wife and little daughter, suggesting that his outbursts of violence are part of an otherwise normal and happy relationship. But there’s next to no insight into either character as the film remains strictly in observational mode throughout, while the distancing effect of the recurring chapter headings every couple of minutes makes it impossible for the film to obtain any kind of dramatic flow.

A high-profile Venice competition slot and Groning’s reputation — his Carthusian monks documentary Into Great Silence was both a festival darling and awards magnet — should ensure some visibility on the film-event circuit but any kind of commercial success, even at home, will be practically impossible in the film’s current form.

Christine (Alexandra Finder) is married to police officer Uwe (David Zimmerschied) and together with their little girl Clara (played by Pia and Chiara Kleemann) they live in a small town near the Dutch border. The couple are into infantile games such as arm wrestling and spraying each other with water and unfortunately the childish behavior doesn’t stop there, as Uwe occasionally goes into fits of violent rage as if he still were a petulant child that didn’t get his way. At the same time, Christine tries to raise Clara to love her father, by no means an easy task, though the protagonist herself seems to do so unconditionally.

Uwe’s first fit of rage directed against his overly docile wife is only seen about 35 minutes in, and after that point new bruises frequently appearing on Christine's body indicate that most of the other beatings occur offscreen. This suggests that the narrative isn’t continuous but that the audience is shown only some random snippets of their day-to-day behavior over a longer time, effectively draining the proceedings of any kind of emotional arc or dramatic tension. While on a conceptual level this might work, as it suggests that domestic violence is part of a never-ending cycle, it makes for rather pointless viewing, as the film could have made the same point with a running time of one hour, or 10 hours.

So sitting through the three-hour version becomes something of an endurance test, with 95 percent of the scenes offering a documentary-like look at relatively normal domestic behavior such as shared meals, lovemaking, Christine playing with Clara and Uwe at work (which seems pretty boring in small-town Germany). But the surface happiness of these scenes is undermined by the evident bruises on Christine’s body and the knowledge Uwe’s behavior is recurrent, making the entire film an unpleasant viewing experience without any catharsis or explanation for either person’s behavior (Christine barely seems to fight what happens to her and apparently has no other friends or family; Uwe doesn’t appear to be a drunkard or otherwise troubled but only seems to have a short fuse). 

Several chapters are dedicated to material not obviously connected to the main strand, including shots of an old man seen in his apartment and of a fox that occasionally appears in the family’s street (the film tries to use animal imagery as a kind of metaphor in several places, but Groning never quite succeeds in integrating them in a subtle yet forceful way). A shot in which mother and daughter seem to have become tiny figures in the family bathtub is also more puzzling than logical and jarringly contrasts with the otherwise almost verité-like tone (further reinforced by the lack of any type of score).

Groning shot the film himself on what looks like a medium-quality digital format, favoring close-up shots indoors in the couple’s cramped and cluttered home that effectively underline the unhealthily claustrophobic nature of their rapport, with occasional overhead and wider outdoor shots allowing for some breathing space. But since no one becomes a fully realized human being, it's hard to care about even the penultimate chapter's note of tragedy.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (in competition)
Production companies: Philip Groning Filmproduktion, Bavaria Pictures, Bavaria Film, 3L Filmproduktion, Bayerischer Rundfunk, ZDF, Arte, Ventura Film, RSI
Cast: Alexandra Finder, David Zimmerschied, Pia Kleemann, Chiara Kleemann, Horst Rehberg, Katharina Susewind, Lars Rudolph
Director: Philip Groning
Screenwriters: Philip Groning, Carola Diekmann
Producers: Philip Groning, Matthias Esche, Philipp Kreuzer, Werner Wirsing
Director of photography: Philip Groning
Production designer: Petra Barchi, Petra Klimek, Adan Hernandez
Costume designer: Ute Paffendorf
Editor: Hannes Bruun, Philip Groning
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 175 minutes