Published Nov 13, 2019The Ground Beneath My Feet is writer-director Marie Kreutzer's take on the 21st century working woman. It's a jarring confrontation, a mirror placed in front of the audience to show how we're working ourselves to death. In an article for Psychology Today, economist, Robert Frank, states that to many of today's rich (it could also be attributed to anyone a part of office culture), leisure is a myth. Work is their fun and their play, becoming their identity instead of just an aspect of their life. The working day never ends, as technology makes it hard to "switch off." Because of this, we're stressed, we burn out, and sacrifice our mental health. Kreutzer explores all this through her film's protagonist, Lola (Valerie Pachner).
Lola is a business consultant who's seemingly keeping everything together — balancing her work and personal life with ease. She knows how to keep the two separate, even being able to date her boss Elise (Mavie Hörbiger), in secret from their colleagues, and collaborate with her professionally. But it's not the only relationship she's keeping secret. She has an older sister Conny (Pia Hierzegger) who has a history of mental illness. When Lola learns that her sister tried to commit suicide, she's in denial. She believes Conny just accidentally took the wrong dose of her medication. Lola is too preoccupied with a big project coming up at work and doesn't need anything else to worry about. She reaches her breaking point when she tries to care for her sister without jeopardizing her career.
The Ground Beneath My Feet is a character study. And through Lola, Kreutzer explores the business world dominated by the patriarchy. Even Lola's boss/girlfriend thinks that having more men in the room is the smarter business strategy. Lola isn't allowed to slip up, she has to constantly impress, often resulting in a diet of coffee and working a 48-hour shift with no sleep. Her life begins to crumble when her sister's hospitalization slowly interferes with her work. Conny is overcome with paranoia, constantly calling Lola because she thinks the hospital staff are going to murder her.
Endless calls and sudden hangups consume the first half of Kreutzer's film. When the warden assures Lola that Conny hasn't been calling, this is where the film shifts into Hitchcockian thriller territory, especially when Lola begins to believe that Conny escaped from the hospital, is following her, observing her every move, down to knowing her exact location and what she's wearing. The gripping thriller that The Ground Beneath My Feet feels like, unfortunately, dies out quickly.
This isn't to say the plot isn't interesting — nothing really stands out apart from Kreutzer's script and the cast's performances. While for the most part, the business side of Lola's life feels more like filler than anything else, and is pretty uninteresting, considering the kind of business Lola does is never explained. But the exploration of the complicated relationships in her life is where the film shines. As seen with the thriller aspect of the narrative, Conny is unpredictable, and because of that, and thanks to Hierzegger's performance, you really don't know where the story is headed. Through Conny, Kreutzer looks at the importance of a supportive environment for people suffering from mental illness, and through Lola's relationship with her sister and struggle to cope, Kreutzer highlights the importance we must project onto our mental health, as much as we do the physical.
The subplot between Lola and Elise is also interesting because it's refreshing, and in a way, unconventional. Dating a colleague is always a bad idea, and this isn't a relationship that should work, but Elise shows genuine care for Lola when she finally reveals what she's going through with her sister. Elise tries to assess the situation and attempts to learn about Lola's sister's mental illness, which is diagnosed as schizophrenia. And it's through this relationship that the audience really gets to see a 21st century woman, striving for perfection, get overwhelmed and burn out.
Valerie Pachner won a German Screen Actors Awards for her performance, and it's warranted, as she skilfully tackles Kreutzer's psychological script. She reflects a similar attitude that so many women have to carry — an air of severity without emotion, because emotion shows weakness. So, when she finally has a mental break, it's shocking. In the film's press notes, Kreutzer states that Lola was inspired by Hitchcock's titular character in Marnie. Like Marnie, Lola refuses to rely on anyone and confront the cracks present in her psyche. Through this, Kreutzer hits us with a final reflection: the harsh reminder that you can't take care of anyone else unless you take care of yourself.