(All images that appear in this blog post are still frames, taken by the author, from the concluding scene of Maren Ade’s 2003 film The Forest for the Trees)
The Forest for the Trees is Maren Ade’s debut feature, and though it was made as a student project it overcomes any minor technical shortcomings with a richness of emotional depth that is rare even in movies assembled by much more experienced filmmakers. I have chosen to examine the closing scene here, which I find to be quite admirable for its refusal to provide absolute narrative closure as well as the way in which it evokes the momentary sense of release that tends to accompany the free-fall into psychosis.
Melanie (Eva Löbau) is a twentysomething school teacher in Germany, and despite her initial optimism in moving to a new city with a new job, her life has gradually deteriorated as the film progresses. Her disastrous, almost entirely one-sided friendship with neighbour Tina (Daniela Holtz) flames out quite spectacularly, and her inability to meet the everyday professional demands of teaching climaxes in her abruptly walking out of a class she is instructing. After finally ejecting some of the trash bags she volunteered to dispose of for Tina from her car into a dumpster (emotional baggage symbolism alert), Melanie drives off in a tear-filled fury.
Gradually regaining her composure, Melanie removes her jacket and starts to relax. She observes the scenery as it drifts by and appears to relinquish control over the car.
It is at this point that Ade departs from any kind of strict realism, as Melanie has fully given up on driving the vehicle and climbs into the back seat, the car continuing on without her input as if by magic. Melanie’s face lights up at least momentarily, the burdens of her existence for the moment on hold.
Melanie is now firmly a passenger, no longer in the driver’s seat, and is (arguably) acting out a consideration of the film’s title, which applies to the fact that she has been so focused on controlling the smaller details of what she thinks makes for a successful existence that she has allowed her life overall to slip into a pretty serious sense of disarray. She takes a breather for perhaps the first time in the movie, simply watching the trees as they float on by her window.
This scene offers a great sense of relief to the viewer after all the interpersonal turmoil that has come before, but it also raises some troubling questions from a practical standpoint. Has Melanie driven her car into a ditch, and this is merely a passed-out reverie she is experiencing? Is she already dead?
I do not tend to get too hung up on these questions because I see this as a more emotionally fulfilling ending than one meant to tie up the narrative in any neat sense. The movie is a character study of Melanie, who seems to be so uncomfortable in her own skin that she feels the need to insert herself into Tina’s life in what proves to be a most unwelcome way.
I can certainly relate to this aspect of Melanie’s character, having had several friends who I have gone too far over the line with, as well as her almost complete inability to control her classroom (I was teaching third-year university students, admittedly, but many of them had the same bad attitudes as do Melanie’s much younger charges). Melanie’s crippling sense of detachment and isolation from others is something I have experienced all too often in my own life, and it is something that I think contributes greatly to an individual’s lack of mental wellness.
As terrifying as psychosis can be (and that is my interpretation of what is going on in this scene, that Melanie has in some way departed from reality as it is commonly understood by others), such a break with the real world can also be in a strange sense liberating. My life had gotten about as bad as it could get when I went fully psychotic, and I am glad it happened in the sense that I needed something that extreme to disrupt my life in order for some kind of change to occur. Melanie may be dead, yes, or at least severely injured, but it is my hope that she is able to survive and create for herself a life less beholden to obtaining approval from others, more focused instead on finding value within her own life.
Jackowski, J. (Producer), & Ade, M. (Director). (2003). The forest for the trees [Motion picture]. Germany: Timebandits Films.