The life of a corporate executive is impossible to depict with anything approaching sincerity onscreen. From character studies that show the numbing effects of putting the professional before the personal (such as 2016’s critical darling Toni Erdmann), to more overtly satirical explorations of the business world like American Psycho, filmmakers have repeatedly asked us to overlook the mundane realities of the boardroom to imagine the extreme emotional tolls this life has upon those living it. The Ground Beneath My Feet (Der Boden unter den Füßen), the fourth film from Austrian director Marie Kreutzer that recently played BFI Flare (following a world premiere in competition at the Berlinale), doesn’t take a satirical approach to similar subject matter – her film couldn’t be easily described as a clear cut critique of the dehumanising effects of capitalism.
Instead, she tones down the satire and replaces it with a slowly creeping psychodrama that she treats with full earnestness. Her lead character is already disassociated from the world around her, prioritising her career at all costs, and starting to lose grip on reality as a result of it. Is it fatigue from the 48 hour days she’s been working, or is it a hereditary mental illness beginning to manifest years after it took a hold on her sister? Kreutzer refrains from giving an easy answer, her story far more slippery in its ambiguity than it may initially appear.
Lola (Valerie Pachner) is a high flying business consultant, whose role largely consists of meeting with high profile clients and suggesting which employees they fire to save money. She practically lives in anonymous hotel rooms, using the few free moments she allows herself outside of work to either exercise intensely, or pursue a secret affair with her boss Elise (Mavie Hörbiger) – even when she’s just getting laid, it somehow ties back to her all consuming day job. But she’s hiding a secret; her older sister Conny (Pia Hierzegger) is in a mental hospital, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia following a suicide attempt. The pair have no parents, and Elise was Lola’s legal guardian, but now the tables have turned, and Lola is Elise’s guardian – a role she tries to avoid confronting as much as she can.
Then, one day at the hotel, she receives a phone call from somebody who appears to be her sister, describing her every move from the hotel window. Lola can’t trace the caller – and her sister was safely kept within the hospital at all times. This delusion kicks off a chain of events that see Lola’s professional life take a turn for the worse as she has to confront a side of herself she’d grown accustomed to compartmentalising.
The Ground Beneath My Feet (Der Boden unter den Füßen) is such a slow burn, that the opening half hour may lead you into thinking this is a more conventional capitalist satire – a European arthouse take on Jason Reitman’s Up In the Air, where selfish professionalism is more important than the lives of those whose jobs are at stake. But Kreutzer’s film is smarter than that, forcing the audience into a false sense of security only to reveal that she’s been chipping away at the supposed perfect demeanour of her protagonist all along. The phone call sequence, roughly half an hour in, initially feels like a shock emanating seemingly out of the blue; it’s so subtly handled, you can imagine some audience members taking another few minutes before realising this could be representing a crack in the realist sheen.
The most overtly damning critique of business consultant culture remains unspoken; the contrasts between Lola’s anonymous hotel suites and business meetings, and the grey surroundings of Conny’s temporary home. Both are imprisoned in one way or another – but is one going crazy because of these confined, conformist surroundings, whereas the other is showing signs of rehabilitation because of it?
The Ground Beneath My Feet (Der Boden unter den Füßen) is a slow burning delight, that manages to effectively balance its arthouse style with its genre inclinations. As an exploration of the emotional toll on women in the male dominated world of business, it would definitely make for a delightfully oddball double bill with Toni Erdmann.