Nominated for the Golden Bear at the 2019 Berlinale, and having just secured a deal in North America, THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET (DER BODEN UNTER DEN FÜSSEN) unearths a surprisingly moving and intensely gripping psychodrama that explores the classic discourse of career versus family, and the shambolic emotional chaos that lies under the surface.
Lola, the lead character, is a senior business consultant, often to be found collectively marching between conferences, her desk, the gym and the airport. Much like her time on the treadmill, the ground beneath her feet really never stops, yet her composed demeanour would suggest her handling of this is as neat as her immaculate apartment. But it is so immaculate only as she is never there, for the skeleton in her closet comes in the form of her sister Conny, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and has to be hospitalised after another overdose.
What THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET does so well is to crumble down the parallels of both sister’s struggles to something subtle and more digestible. The varying traits of self-destruction are presented different: Conny’s is more visual through her stash of blood-soaked pens and copious empty pill pots; Lola’s behaviour is depicted through unwavering stubbornness to seek rest within her rigid career structure. The latter is less noticeable but still permeated with the same unhealthy toxicity. The film’s approach is exceptionally brilliant in making you reflect upon how we perceive mental health – it is not always directly noticeable or linear, and lack of acknowledgement about someone’s emotional decline is what leads to serious long-term effects; no one is directly exempt from the severity of bad mental health. As Conny acutely puts it after an argument they have in the hospital over her guardianship: “Just because you have a credit card and fly around, doesn’t make you better” – the subtle knock hinting at Lola’s concealed mental health is a powerful rebuttal.
“The film’s approach is exceptionally brilliant in making you reflect upon how we perceive mental health…”
Lola’s breakdown is crippling: one that is expected but still a brutal shock. Her own neuroticism becomes more intense by the day as she tries to cope with her workaholic mindset and intensely routine-orientated days that attempt to give her small measures of control in a life spiralling out of her grasp. The atmosphere becomes stifling and her paranoia fills the air in a cacophonous way – a direct immersion for the audience to hear the noiseless stress inside her head. With this in mind, the attitude she has towards Conny’s mental health feels brutal itself, dismissing her sister’s ability to function by coldly remarking “She’s not fit for this life” after another suicide attempt. This could also be perceived as a level of self-preservation for her own sanity, yet the remark remains brutal. Even her gaze at Elise holds this exceptional poker face, a piercing icy stare that makes Lola appear isolating and distant from the offset. Instead, she’s just hoping that someone will wait for the ice to thaw and allows her to melt into her own emotions, to not feel the pressures of continually being strong. In many ways the film feels stifling, with the pressure building until breaking point. It is a beautiful approach, built on nuanced dialogue, subtle psychological transitions and never pretending to be an over-dramatisation.
The conflict presented is one that many face: inundated with career and work pressures that become more strained when compounded with personal affairs and a sense of duty to yourself or your family. Being her sister’s primary carer is stressful enough, but Lola’s corporate responsibility to her work comes first, not to mention the fact she’s having an affair with her boss Elise, who is a principle key to their joint promotion. This subplot is handled very tactfully, taking the pressurised dynamic of the sleeping-with-your-superior connotations and weaving them into the tapestry of the piece. They are a loving and ambitious coupling that are unwavering in their plans to reach the top together, in addition to gorgeous post-coital moments, their own endorphin-infused escapism in the chasm of their chaotic lives.
“The team at the corporation is mostly female, […] their abilities driving them forward: a march lead by Elise and Lola, piercing the glass ceiling with their heels.”
The team at the corporation is mostly female, and the level of self-control they all emit compared to their male counterparts is a demonstration of their abilities driving them forward: a march lead by Elise and Lola, piercing the glass ceiling with their heels. However, this leaves no room for emotional development or collapse, due to the stereotype of outward feelings showing ‘weakness’ (despite the fact that letting off steam is a crucial part of self-care in such a high-profile stressful environment). This pressure felt by Lola is exerted onto the audience. The film also doesn’t shy away from the fact that the senior management are completely male and have a typical aura of internalised misogyny and sexism, especially when one executive attempts to make a pass at Lola and undermine her.
There is a risk of disengaging from Marie Kreutzer’s film as it leaps from one tangent to another, but if you allow yourself to be absorbed by Lola (played by the spellbinding Valerie Pachner) as she desperately attempts to navigate her surroundings you will not. We are made more aware of our reality and the plates that we continuously juggle, a dancing bear for the baiting crowds – our ambition demanded as we keep immaculately poised. While dry and sincere at times, the film reels you in and makes you question how much you really are in control.