Directed by Grzegorz Muskala
Originally aired at midnight on German television as part of a showcase for first-time filmmakers highlighting genre cinema, Die Frau hinter der Wand (or Whispers Behind the Wall as it’s known Stateside) was originally supposed to only run sixty minutes in length in order to fit within the allotted time a packed TV schedule could allow for. Thankfully, when director Grzegorz Muskala turned in his impressive debut – coming in at a tight ninety minutes – boob tube executives decided it was too good not to run in its entirety.
As it was permitted to stand, Whispers Behind the Wall definitely feels a little dirty, rubbing right up against the viewer, offering itself up as a sex-fueled journey of self-discovery that becomes a struggle for self-preservation. And, ultimately, a search for a new apartment…
In correlation with the filmmaker, a lonely law student named Martin (Redetzki) is also experiencing a number of firsts: He finally finds his own apartment in the cutthroat market of Berlin, where he then proceeds to fall in love for the first time with his older, sexually liberated landlord, Simone (Ms. Bader if you’re nasty). The building’s caretaker, a friendly but cautious man named Horn (Ronald Nitschke), seems to know more about the mysterious departure of the flat’s previous tenant, Robert (Robert Stadlober), but Martin is content to stay in the dark on the subject and just clean up the mess that’s been left behind. That is, until he finds Robert’s journal filled with disturbing drawings of sexual submission and obsessive ramblings about Simone just as he, himself, is beginning to feel her seductive pull.
Although also involved with high-tempered neighbor Sebastian (Panzner), Simone – a passionate artist of striking beauty – still seems like the perfect woman to Martin, but through the walls they share he begins to witness his lessor-turned-lover’s behavior become more and more unhinged over time. New crush Katharina Heyer plays Simone with magnetic intensity, and actors Redetzki and Panzer use her energy to fan the flames of lust felt by both of their characters. Whether she’s ravishing her innocent tenant next door or slaving over one of her sculptures (a bizarre “self-portrait” in the form of a black box covered in mud, in particular), Simone’s arc moves from slinky seductress to the deranged devil behind the wall.
Exceptional for a project originally made for television, the story, although largely self-contained, never feels like a watered-down, cheaper production the way a movie-of-the-week here might seem. Most effective when it focuses on the love triangle among Sebastian, Martin, and Simone, Whispers in the Dark isn’t completely free from some of the pedestrian tropes that tend to surface in more melodramatic fare found in TV land, however. A red herring that serves only as a misdirect leads nowhere, leaving the sense of mystery first developed by Martin’s discovery of the journal to taper off until his suspicion propelling the narrative dissolves into pure infatuation. Also, at times Simone’s tantrums are overdone and severe enough to warrant Martin to reopen his investigation, but he remains a slave to love which, in turn, hurts the film’s momentum until it ramps up again suddenly in the final, predictably out-of-control third act.
When things fall apart, Whispers Behind the Wall depicts that common, ever present, strictly male fear of commitment when faced with the first major relationship of their adult lives. (Martin probably wishes he’d have just stuck to his studies.) Digging a little deeper, the wall separating both leads could be seen as a loose metaphor for the Berlin Wall, but that falls apart when looking for allegorical meaning – so that’s probably just a prime example of over-thinking things. If anyone is over-thinking anything, it’s Simone, causing her to become enraged and lash out at the men in her life. How typical.