The pursuit of truth is a demand that cannot be fulfilled through seeing alone. An encounter with cinema resides through a locale of turbulent openings that allow a mental space for future thought still to be developed. Our very idea of narrative enjoyment is a misnomer, a cul-de-sac that needn’t answer anything other than enjoyment. Yet there exists an avenue where the idea of enjoyment is something only to be savoured retrospectively; the experience of this achievement is of the moment – painful, meditative and transcendental. Philip Gröning’s The Police Officer’s Wife (2013) arrives burdened by existing on its own terms, a film experienced but not particularly enjoyed by most at Venice last year.
Gröning’s film is split into 59 short chapters that, in the words of its director, “suppose a challenge given to the audience”. The titular wife of the police officer in question, Christine (Alexandra Finder), is a stay-at-home mother; her husband a morose small town law enforcer Uwe (David Zimmerschied). We observe in harsh mundanity the ebb and flow of their lower middle-class existence. Scenes stand outside of narrative structures but within an idea of representational compartmentalisation. After close to 40 minutes we realise that we are peering into the minutia of an abusive relationship. Several of the chapters also observe elements with no visible link to the husband and wife duo, including animals (residing both within the country and in urban environments) and an enigmatic old man.
Gröning is best known for his 2005 documentary Into Great Silence, which examined life inside the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order in France. Similarly, The Police Officer’s Wife’s inherent strangeness resides in isolation, both for the couple and their idyllic surroundings. We never see them interact with anyone, with the exception of a few scenes of the officer at work. This isn’t a brutal film per se – though there are few scenes of violence – but over the near three-hour runtime we gradually notice the wife’s demeanour change and see the bruises getting bigger and darker. The obsession with narrative explanation visàvis emotional cause and effect is completely absent. This is a film of objects, space and the acceptance of the unexplained which is thought less of than mere understanding of a personal contextualisation that we can never hope to understand.
The Police Officer’s Wife’s power lies in the cognitive explosions it sets within the subconscious of the viewer that forcefully interacts with the formally audacious claustrophobic rhythms. Gröning’s latest could easily be approached as a philosophical tract on the idea of how to watch cinema; a palate cleanser that illuminates an approach that demands an openness of mind and body which is slowly becoming a forgotten trait. One thinks of the idea of negative capability – not Keats’ poetic idea but the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s interpretation; the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or overreaching certainties upon an ambiguous situation.