The Police Officer's Wife

There are many films in competition at Venice this year that, whilst being perfectly competent, are more like BBC dramas than festival films. Philip Gröning’s Die Frau des Polizisten isn’t one of them.

Uwe (David Zimmerschied) is a policeman in a provincial German town. When we watch him at work, it is often in the surrounding countryside. Yet this is no tale of bucolic loveliness. Uwe beats his wife Christine (Alexandra Finder) with an intensity and frequency that builds throughout the film’s 175 minutes until the inevitable and tragic denouement. Initially, though, Gröning shows a happy family, the couple with their young daughter Clara out hunting Easter eggs in the woods or eating and laughing together in the kitchen.

The film is broken up into chapters. We see squirrels in the park, a fox trotting down a residential street at night and Uwe killing an injured deer. These three woodland creatures are all represented on Clara’s pyjamas. She tells her mum that she wants to change pyjamas, which also have the image of a bear. She explains that the other animals are scared of the large and dangerous bear and that she doesn’t like him. Christine reassures Clara, saying the bear is not dangerous. Yet Uwe is the bear in their household, a dangerous and menacing animal that threatens the more peaceable creatures.

The bear is also the symbol of Germany and of the national police force, another connection to Uwe. Christine and Clara are frequently viewed in their home, which is all steep staircases and sloping ceilings, or in their narrow backyard. The sense is of two closely confined prisoners whose freedom is severely curbed. When Christine looks out of her window at a street market taking place below the family home, her complete isolation is palpable.

Uwe’s gradual descent into extreme violence is well portrayed, as is Christine’s dependency on Uwe; she’s a woman incapable of making her escape. Another interesting character is an old man. We don’t know exactly who he is – Uwe as an old man? His father? He is elderly, unsmiling and totally alone.

Gröning focuses on the minutiae of all the good things Uwe is slowly chipping away at: the beautiful child (one scene lingers on the sleeping girl in extreme close-up and it is incredibly affecting), the couple’s boisterous playfulness, the mother-daughter relationship. The cinematography is at times breathtaking and there is no doubting this director’s enormous talent and his use of singing is also very effective. Yet his division of the film into chapters, each one bearing the title Beginning Chapter One or End of Chapter Twenty Two quickly begins to pall. After fifty-seven chapters, the audience feels a little battered and bruised themselves, but perhaps this was Gröning’s intention. However, he wears his festival credentials a little too proudly on his sleeve. After almost three hours, we are relieved to have made our own escape.