A follow-up to his own fascinating 2005 documentary Into the Silence, Philip Gröning’s LFF offering The Police Officer’s Wife (2013) is a demanding, stylistically eccentric and often gruelling exploration of the insidious cost of domestic violence, told in a series of 59 short chapters. A jigsaw puzzle is spotted in the kitchen early on, and we too are expected to piece a narrative together which seems hell-bent on confounding and delaying information. Uwe (David Zimmerschied) is the police officer and Christine (Alexandra Finder) is the eponymous wife, whilst their young daughter Clara is played by twins. Uwe works late and is often tired, but his and Christine’s life seems a happy one.
Gradually, however, we suspect that things are not entirely rosy. We spot bruises on Christine’s arm. Perhaps it’s nothing; after all, they are a couple who indulge in occasional bouts of horseplay and the like. Yet, following an inexplicable burst of temper on Uwe’s behalf, we begin to fear the worst. The Police Officer’s Wife’s elliptical narrative may well be a major stumbling block for many, the chapter breaks alone are an exasperatingly unnecessary and pretentious touch. Furthermore, we see nothing of the outside world. Christine has no friends, neighbours don’t speak to her, and even Uwe’s job is sensed from afar. Is this because Christine is a prisoner? Is Uwe liked at work? None of this information is made readily available to us. Instead, we’re left with the menace of Uwe’s outbursts.
Gröning’s camera catches the textures of domestic living perfectly; the light in the yard, the shine of the table tops, the fabric of the sofa. And, no doubt a result of his documentarian past, his camera is also unobtrusive, managing to get into the middle of the family games and fights without ever getting in the way. Yet, there is still something deeply disturbing and unnerving about the German director’s cool, almost detached approach. We never get truly into of his characters’ heads. Christine is given no way of expressing herself, which might be a function of domestic violence, but could also be due in-part to the filmmaker’s apparent fear of melodrama. For all its stylistic adeptness and cumulative power, The Police Officer’s Wife is a punishing watch that doesn’t unfortunately seem to have anything in particular to say.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our coverage, follow this link.