The Forest for the Trees, by German filmmaker Maren Ade, is one of the deepest depictions of loneliness on-screen. After serving as a television producer and shooting two shorts, Ade made this first feature, based on her own screenplay, in 2003. A remarkable, unnerving work, it already exhibits some of her trademarks: complex psychology, a steadfast look at embarrassing situations, a mixture of melancholic and comic, and an utter refusal of sentimentality or, for that matter, redemption. If I find her films exhilarating, it is by way of their willingness to treat as honestly as possible the conflicted, intransigent, squeamish parts of human nature.
My first encounter with this filmmaker came when I saw her second feature, Everyone Else, in 2009. I was astonished by its boldness about heterosexual couples and their sexual and emotional hang-ups, their inability to go that last extra mile of surrendering to love. Her third feature, Toni Erdmann (2016), was a more boisterous, deliciously comic romp, establishing Ade as a favorite on the international film festival circuit. I was curious to catch up with her maiden effort, which never received a theatrical release in the U.S. but is now streaming on the Criterion Channel. I didn’t expect much, but sometimes these early features by auteurs, like Bertolucci’s The Grim Reaper or Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha, have rough glimmers that prefigure the sustained efforts to follow. In fact, The Forest for the Trees proved a fully accomplished artistic statement, no apologies necessary.
It focuses on Melanie (Eva Löbau), a twenty-seven-year-old woman who, when we first meet her, is leaving her boyfriend of eight years and moving to Karlsruhe to take up her first teaching job. Significantly, we are introduced to her in the process of jilting her longtime lover: since the rest of the film will show her being snubbed, we can’t see her as a pure victim. Melanie is moderately attractive, but her ex is rather goony-looking, and she probably thinks she deserves better.
Eager to make friends in her new environment, she proffers homemade schnapps to her neighbors, calling them a “housewarming gift” and then catching herself with the realization that the term is usually reserved for residents welcoming a newcomer, not the other way around. We will come to recognize this as her pattern: she initiates the “nice” gesture as though modeling it, expecting others to return it and being disappointed. The aggressiveness beneath this conventional display of manners is subtly implied, if hidden from Melanie. She introduces herself to the other teachers at school with food treats but ruins it by saying she’s been exposed to novel pedagogic methods and hopes they will welcome “a breath of fresh air.” This does not go down well with these burnt-out veterans, who look at her with stony resentment.
Your heart goes out to Melanie as she sets about trying to employ these innovative techniques, only to be met with rudeness, rowdiness, cruelty, and boredom. The children test the newcomer to the limit. One boy throws a carton of chocolate milk at her back, damaging the new jacket she’d bought in the hopes of looking more “professional.” She calls in the boy’s mother, a lynx-eyed blond who denies her son has done any such thing, and blames Melanie for not being able to control the class.
True, Melanie doesn’t seem able to summon the authority to keep the kids in order: she wants them to like her and have fun; she wants to be their pal. I saw this happening again and again during the open classroom era when I taught children: young teachers would strain to be non-authoritarian, only to find kids preferred old battle-axes who set limits and forced them to do the work. There is a movie subgenre about idealistic teachers who encounter troublesome students and win them over (Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase, Dangerous Minds): this is not one of them. Melanie never does get the hang of controlling her classes; her plot arc lies in a different direction.
She becomes fascinated by a neighbor across the way, the beautiful Tina (Daniela Holtz), who works in a boutique. Tina has the looks and style that Melanie covets: whether her preoccupation with this neighbor is driven solely by admiration or has a homoerotic component, whatever “romance” exists in the film has to do with Melanie courting Tina. She insists on doing favors for Tina, keeps inviting herself to hang out with her, and pries into her love life. Melanie is both generously helpful and nosily intrusive. Tina, for her part, does not entirely rebuff her: she wants to get rid of her before her staff party at the store, so she gives her a dress as a present. She forgets to show up for a date with Melanie, but then invites her to her birthday party. It’s important to recognize that Tina is not intentionally cruel: she just doesn’t need Melanie for a friend as much as Melanie needs her. Tina may have the upper hand in looks and an exciting life, but she would also like to act courteously to this needy neighbor. That is, until Melanie blows it by interfering in the complicated romance between Tina and her ex-boyfriend Tobias. When Tina discovers what Melanie has done, she shouts at her, “You’re not all there, are you? You just don’t get it, do you?”