In a bid to create an impressionistic, scrupulously fair-minded portrait of domestic abuse, Philip Groening’s “The Police Officer’s Wife” forfeits genuine emotional perspective for mere technical ones. This much-anticipated feature following the helmer’s extraordinary 2005 docu, “Into Great Silence,” is an endurance test that offers few rewards to justify its nearly three-hour running time. Maddeningly divided into 59 chapters, each coyly signaled with “ Beginning of chapter … ” and “End of chapter … ,” this intimate but enervating drama aims for subtlety, yet its overwhelming pretensions deny the wife agency and generate irked pity rather than sympathy. Most arthouse audiences will react negatively.
A narrow little brick house on a narrow little brick street. Uwe (David Zimmerschied) comes home from cop duty on the late shift, the dawn light creeping inside to reveal a home with the smile-inducing touch of a child in every room. In subsequent scenes he’s seen warmly interacting with wife Christine (Alexandra Finder) and young daughter Clara (played by twins Pia and Chiara Kleemann), going on outdoor strolls in the nearby countryside or eating spaghetti together. It’s not a problem that Groening takes his time showing the tender relationship among all three family members, though already the slow dissolves in and out of chapter headings take up too much time and interrupt an emotional response.
Both Mom and Dad have solo bonding moments with Clara; Christine shows her nature, Uwe takes her to a monster-truck rally. Christine and Clara plant seeds in a thin strip of earth running alongside an alleyway at the side of the house; speaking to Groening’s tendency toward faux-subtle metaphor, weeds overrun their little garden, and Clara’s desire to help the worms in the soil result in their destruction.
The first sign of human violence occurs around 35 minutes in, when Uwe flips after not finding his wife where he thinks she should be in the house. Sometime later, even before the couple’s quiet tenderness becomes noticeably rarer, large bruises can be glimpsed on Christine’s body. For the most part, Groening avoids showing actual scenes of brutality, and when he does, the camera tends to maintain a respectful distance. Were the chapter cards removed, this restraint could have created unbearable tension; instead, it makes audiences impatient for any emotional spike to shake up the benumbing effects of the dissolves.
Occasional scenes of Uwe at work at least situate him in the world at large, but Christine is always either in the house or out alone with Clara or hubby. No neighbors, no family, no friends are seen who could notice her bruises or her increasingly nervous timidity. Apparently Clara doesn’t go to school, and Christine doesn’t do any shopping. Chapters featuring animals — a fox, a squirrel, deer — further the pic’s fairy-tale design, fostered by the dollhouse-like construction of their home, yet this straddling of realism and storybook elements fails to justify itself with any strong emotional pull.
Of course the black-and-blue marks become bigger and more frequent, and Clara tells Mommy she doesn’t want to wear her animal-print PJs anymore because the bear, “strong and mean,” is hitting the other animals. No, no, Christine says, the bear is strong but he isn’t mean, he has to be tough to look after the others. Oh, brother.
Uwe is mean, and although he’s the villain of the piece, it feels as though Groening also wants to accord him some sympathy, or at least offer a rationale for his behavior: His police work in such a small town is dull, and perhaps he’s not living the life he imagined. Too bad for him, but it’s hardly enough to illuminate his heinous behavior. Several chapters feature a silent, solitary old man (Horst Rehberg) with a pained expression that suggests he has a story so terrible he can’t speak. Groening disingenuously claims in the press materials not to know who this man is, though the only possible reading is that he’s the police officer in later life. But if Uwe is asking audiences for understanding, he fails miserably.
Unfortunately, the character of Christine also has trouble generating much of a response, largely due to her frustrating passivity. She’s not beaten into submission; she’s already fairly passive, unquestionably a warm mother but ill equipped to protect Clara from the increasing atmosphere of violence. A shocking scene of her standing bruised and naked in the harsh rays of the bathroom’s skylight, joined by Clara as Uwe breaks open the door, reveals a woman robbed of any personality, yet had Groening shown her even marginally less accepting of the blows, this disturbing transformation would have delivered greater punch.
The fault doesn’t lie with the actors, all expert at conveying emotions through body language. But as it stands now, the film is a long slog most notable for Groening’s own interesting lensing, with its careful descriptions of space and objects, and how they appear in shadowed rooms or daylight. Subjective shots, such as a distorted, enormous bathtub seen from above, and an overabundance of slow fades leave impressions ultimately unconnected to the story itself. Digital harshness, especially in outdoor scenes, may be a DCP issue.