Written by: Maren Ade
Starring: Eva Löbau, Daniela Holz, Jan Neumann
Anxiety brewing from starting fresh in a new place is normal, especially for a more introverted person. Everything that once served as a comfort zone is now gone and as seen in The Forest for the Trees, unideal circumstances can only make the feeling worse. Unending anxiety ultimately captures what this seeks to evoke and its effectiveness demonstrates the brilliance of its director right from the start.
Moving to a new town as a teacher, Melanie (Eva Löbau) finds herself in an unideal situation with uncontrollable students. Despite the struggles while at work, she hopes to find friends and have some sort of social life when she begins to interact with a potential new friend. Unfortunately, this interaction also only piles onto the overwhelming feeling of loneliness in her life.
Operating as Maren Ade’s feature film debut and one made as her thesis in film school, I could not be more impressed by what she created. Sure the camera and visual quality certainly back up the assertion of what she had available when making this, but what Ade captures through this story and character harnesses a level of humanity emanating from the screen. The shabby look does not matter and in reality, it only makes the viewing experience better.
At the core of this story, we have a woman yearning for connection with anyone around her and seemingly every single option not only does not reciprocate but in turn openly mocks her. This gets seen when teaching these students. Now, there are many reasons why someone would go into teaching but one of the more popular ones lies in caring for kids and their educational development. The salary they receive does not justify the amount of work so there must be an emotional connection. With so much good will, she enters the classroom in her new school and gets nothing but disrespected by her students. The way Ade shoots the scenes in the classroom show just how ghastly children can be towards the teacher and only makes it more painful seeing how much she genuinely cares for them. Teachers want to connect with students in order to help them and in no way was Melanie ever going to receive it from these kids.
The other instance appears with trying to make friends with Tina (Daniela Holz), a woman who sells her a jacket. Not the typical way the average person may find a friend but Melanie develops a connection with her. Starting out it appears they could form something of substance and might end up being the saving grace for the protagonist, but things get a bit messy as Tina becomes another person unwilling to reciprocate even common decency for Melanie. The worst part of it all comes from seeing all of this through the perspective of the protagonist. Sure, she definitely does not have the best social skills but she comes towards every situation with the best intentions and a place where she seeks a level of connection with anyone.
Unwieldy and desperate throughout, the way Maren Ade captures the sequences with Melanie gets right at the heart of how she feels. The camera has so much focus on her face and how she processes everything around her. We truly get put into her perspective for everything therefore when her students treat her terribly, it seemingly also happens to us as the audience. When watching this feature, you may believe some of the sequences with the students may be exaggerated but I’m sure other teachers can rectify that thinking right away. Everything happening in the classroom captures chaos in a place where there should be learning and progression occurring. There’s no way to properly teach someone how to do anything if a basic level of respect does not exist. You would think other teachers in the school or perhaps parents would be of any use for her, but it becomes quite obvious the opposite is true.
Along with yearning for connection, The Forest for the Trees demonstrates just how isolated one can be even when always surrounded by people. Working as a teacher requires a level of social skills because of the constant interaction with the students and all others, including colleagues and superiors. The only breaks from being social arise in lunch breaks, which as my wife will say, do not really exist if you want to leave for home at a reasonable hour. Working in such a sociable profession and still feeling completely alone gets displayed so well in this feature as no matter of small talk will help her interact with people showing no interest in ever responding. It all goes the same for living in an apartment complex with hundreds of other people but never interacting with them. As populated a life Melanie may live, she suffers from a level of isolation and loneliness really grounding the emotional effectiveness of this feature.
Even with the incredible work done by Maren Ade, the acting by Eva Löbau helped immensely in capturing the emotional struggle of this character. She does so well to evoke the unrelenting horrors this situation has on Melanie. With the focus on her face and the awkwardness she needs to imbue, Löbau knocks it out of the park by demonstrating the innocent intentions of this character and how easily she can be manipulated into thinking trusting in others will help her. The reaction shots to her when the students say the most outlandish things truly sums it up for how great she proved to be in this role.
Not many film school thesis projects have the quality of The Forest for the Trees and it shows right from the beginning how special Maren Ade will be as a filmmaker. Her incredible control with the camera and efficiency with her storytelling allows for this experience to be gut-wrenching and anxiety-inducing at the same time. You just want to tell Melanie that things will eventually turn around for her but at every turn things seemingly get worse. I remain completely blown away by this work and stands out as one of the finest directorial debuts ever, especially considering the limited resources.