The Ground Beneath My Feet (Der Boden unter den Füßen)

Austria (2019) Dir. Marie Kreutzer

It is true that life has a funny way of unfolding for us all. No matter if we are poor or privileged, we will all, at some point, hit a brick wall or find ourselves drowning in our problems. Such stresses are commonplace but not always insurmountable – it is when the mind starts caving in that you need to worry.

Lola (Valerie Pachner) is a hardnosed business professional in the consultancy game, approaching her work and life with fixed routines and minimal fuss. Her company is in the middle of a major project with a top-flight client when Lola gets a call saying her older sister Conny (Pia Hierzegger) is in a coma following a suicide attempt. Keeping this from her colleagues, Lola zips between seeing her sister and her work.

When Conny awakens, the hospital won’t release her until she is stronger, despite pleas from Conny that she is being abused by the staff. Lola continues to get phone calls from Conny and when she challenges the hospital, Lola is told Conny doesn’t have access to a phone. The calls continue, at one point with Conny claiming she is outside Lola’s flat yet there is nobody there. Is Lola ill too or is it just stress?

Putting work before family is not a new thing but is a major problem if you are in the spouse and kids set up, who you may be working for but never see if you prioritise the office over the home. If you are single and independent, then its fair game; the only victim of this dedication is your health. Marie Kreutzer offers a dark, psychological take on this subject, with the occasional nod to the cutthroat world of office politics.

You may have the cash, house, and fancy clothes but in the world of corporate business it could all be gone in a flash if you slip up just once or somebody with fresher, better ideas arrives. Kreutzer uses this as the basis for this sharp, but very melancholic study of a modern woman on the precipice of total collapse. In a world where awareness of mental health issues is prominent, wake up calls such as this still feel necessary.

The title may be poetic but it sums up the vertiginous emotional and mental downward spiral Lola is about to go on. In early scenes, we get a picture of Lola as the ferociously ambitious type, maybe a bit too cold in her power suits and platinum blonde hair, taking no prisoners but getting results. Colleagues and clients are not the only ones impressed – Lolo is in a clandestine relationship with her look-a-like boss Elise (Mavie Hörbiger). Although favouritism is not an issue, we soon know exactly where the power lies.

Conny, as cruel as it sounds, is less a person and more a plot device for Lola’s problems, part catalyst, and part totem. Aside from her around the clock workload, Lola puts herself through a punishing exercise regime, either on the exercise bike or running. This is a subtle allusion to Lola’s running away from something – either Conny or something related to Conny, or maybe Lola’s own past.

Over time, we learn Lola and Conny are orphaned half-sisters growing up separately because of the age difference but now, Conny’s mental health issues means Lola is her official guardian. Lola never left Conny wanting for anything but didn’t tell others about her, including Elise, as if a mentally ill dependant older sister is an embarrassment to her or worse, a blot against her corporate image.

Hardly an ideal personality for a protagonist and someone we should feel sympathy for, which is why the story takes a while to pile on the misery and change our minds. Conny starts to take on a metaphysical presence in Lola’s life through the phone calls that she later learns was impossible for Conny to have made. Lola’s visits to the hospital seldom end on a happy note, usually with Conny feeling angry at being left behind as Lola jets off to a cushy business meeting in a swanky hotel.

Kreutzer’s script may seem like it is out to systematically destroy Lola with a barrage of attacks from all sides designed to drive her into the ground. The situation with Conny is taking a toll on Lola’s mind, which in turn forces a confession to Elise that is taken as an abuse of trust. This seeps over to the office where smarmy colleague Sebastian (Marc Benjamin) is keen to usurp Lola and eventually does, which doesn’t go down so well with Lola as you might expect.

Because of the time spent on Lola’s work life, it is easy to feel the mental health facet is not being sufficiently addressed, yet I am sure many will praise Kreutzer for approaching it from a different angle. However, too much time is spent on the quotidian whilst serious issues like sexism are giving fleeting attention. Lola, despite her own orientation, is not so subtly hit on by one important male client whilst Sebastian points out during an uncomfortable confrontation in the men’s room why he is a success in business.

Much of the incidental detail in the script is what many viewers will find relatable, whilst Lola herself is perhaps too much of a creation to recognise oneself in. That said, Valerie Pachner turns in a remarkable performance, handling the exponential change in Lola with a resolute commitment to each stage. Whether she is commanding a business call or freaked out like she was in a horror film, the weight on Lola’s shoulders is paralleled to that on Pachner’s as the lead.

A slightly tighter script to give each aspect of Lola’s descent into tumult equal weight would make The Ground Beneath My Feet a striking work of significance and power. As it is, Pachner’s performance coupled with Kreutzer’s quietly haunting direction are enough to make us sit up and take notice.

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