Hungry Like the Wolf: Nicolette Krebitz’s “Wild”

By Michael Barrett

Modern civilization is toxic enough to drive anyone crazy. This theme shows up in many guises, and now we find it in a character study crossed with a distinctly provocative fairy tale. Streaming on OVID, Wild is the fascinating offspring of German filmmaker Nicolette Krebitz, who tells the story of a young woman named Ania and her encounter with a wolf.

Ania’s no Red Riding Hood on her way to Grandma’s house, although she will find herself in Grandpa’s house, and so will the wolf. How that happens will reveal that the animal’s no match for Ania, who responds to its wildness with untapped feral resources of her own.

First we meet Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) in her everyday life–that is, in her cages. Given how our lives are defined by doors, windows and screens, it must be difficult to shoot a film about modern life without these visual elements. Krebitz embraces them as part of her theme. Almost every shot is composed with frames or screens or both, always entrapping or reflecting Ania, an IT specialist in a bland ad agency of panes and cubicles.

We see her constantly framed behind screens: her office windows, her distorting shower door, her umbrella as refracted red lights appear in the background, a green scrim at a shooting range (the odd early sign of her hidden potential for violence), one lower panel of a rain-soaked window where everyone except her is pretending to have a good time, a bus window.

These images from the first reel alone, as well as the camera’s languid lateral pans across her office or the office party, establish her as isolated, lonely and adrift as an urban drone. In contrast, in the refreshingly wide open space of a semi-forested park between work and home, she glimpses a wolf that eyes her with what we’ll decide must be recognition.

For Ania, it’s love at first sight, or at least a fascination and yearning. Among other insights, the wolf (played by two different wolves, one very beautiful) symbolizes or simply illustrates the point that we’re animals of hungers and appetites. Ania’s life has cut her off from anything that physically or mentally or spiritually feeds her in a healthy, productive way.

Methodically, Ania learns how to trap the animal and goes about it as forthrightly as Jean-Claude Van Damme on a mission. She’s aided by a few Asian women who work in a clothing factory and who justifiably come to suspect she’s unhinged. The movie makes the point that laborers, such as the janitors, are immigrants to this society. These are more people who, like the wolf, are displaced from their original environment and may feel trapped by a hostile world.

But you can be born into this world and still feel trapped and displaced, and that’s the film’s primal insight. The fact that Ania is a young woman invokes the specific baggage of sexism and its constraints, as in the scene where Ania removes the bra from a co-worker. This sexual division also manifests when her gruff boss Boris insists she fetch the coffee and signals his interest in her, which she successfully ignores. He’s played by Georg Friedrich, vaguely resembling a young, shambling, broken-nosed Gerard Depardieu.

However, Krebitz recognizes that Boris is also trapped and frustrated, if at a higher level, and that’s why he escapes into alcohol and womanizing. Consider an odd “breakthrough” scene where Ania, impulsively hiding in a dark recess and pretending to be a prostitute, grabs the drunken Boris’ wallet and runs away. They each react with laughter, as though this lark is the night’s high point. Later, when Ania and Boris are speaking plainly, she says she knows he feels the same thing she’s talking about, and which is best called existential angst. He too hates his life.

In that confrontation, he’s still in a place where he rejects her insight, though she’ll later perform an action that breaks through to him where another boss would simply press charges. They’ve been drawn to each other by a certain affinity, and that’s probably why he’s had her bring his coffee–not for coffee but an excuse for her presence.

Perhaps another film would have him rescue her, but since he’s basically in a more privileged version of the same urban strait, Krebitz backs away from that solution. Still, she goes a fair way to redeeming Boris. That’s a Russian name, by the way, as is Ania, and Ania finds a Russian book about wolves. Wolves are a Russian thing besides being a basic part of European and American mythology, from Romulus and Remus to werewolves to Red Riding Hood to Native American folklore.

Speaking of dances with wolves, I’m dancing around the fact that when Ania at the halfway point drags the wolf indoors to live in her apartment, where she knows very well he doesn’t want to be (but will get used to it, as we all do), they begin a relationship that for her is partly sexual, although the wolf’s ministrations are strictly oral and, from his POV, non-sexual.

The film doesn’t dwell explicitly on this, only giving us a couple of brief licking scenes, but Stangenberg’s embodiment of Ania’s reactions validates the ever-popular impulse to explain isolationist behavior with the “needs to get laid” theory. (Well, who doesn’t?) Then there’s the ecstatic “sliding down the banister” sequence, complete with more rectangular frames upon frames. These are the moments that surely make the film a sensation in a crowded theatre and certainly keep it memorable.

Dialogue is sparse and usually unimportant, nor does this highly visual film waste much time on Ania’s background. She never met her father but has a dying, hospitalized grandfather (Hermann Beyer) whose last name is Böttcher, which the internet tells me is “cooper” or barrel-maker and a synonym for Fassbinder! Isn’t that delightful?

Ania has a sister, Jenny (Saskia Rosendahl), who strongly resembles her and lives in grandfather’s flat with a boyfriend until Jenny moves out and Ania moves in. Ania will have her own, very different live-in companion, and the movie has a grim (or Grimm?) German sense of humor about this.

Another by the way: German literature has a rich Romantic tradition of the sonderling, the odd, isolated person who goes their own way. The sonderling might be driven to criminality or self-destruction, or they might simply be an innocent too pure for this world. The concept is embodied in cultural figures like Kaspar Hauser, whose story has been retold and embellished by Jakob Wassermann, Peter Handke, Werner Herzog and others.

You find sonderlings in writers as diverse as Heinrich Von Kleist (e.g. Michael Kohlhaas, filmed by Volker Schlöndorff in 1969) and Adalbert Stifter, many of whose stories focus on lonely misfits. You find many such characters in New German Cinema, such as Handke and Wim Wenders’ The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), and even in older films like Fritz Lang’s (1931), which I find briefly channeled in the scene where Ania “stalks” Boris into the alley. So although Wild feels like an up-to-the-minute study of the modern dilemma, it has long roots.

Not to give anything away, but the film’s wrap-up in an Antonioni landscape feels more symbolic or fantastic than literal. If literal, she’s finally feeling connected to the natural world, such as she can find it. If this is only symbolic, then maybe it’s not so happy.

Krebitz wrote and directed Wild almost a decade ago. It has a release date of 2016, but the copyright notice at the end states 2014, so it may have taken a while to get distribution. Considering its discomfiting nature, that wouldn’t be too surprising. Equally unsurprising is that this film about toxicities, shot well before the pandemic crisis, feels so relevant that it might as well have been finished last week.

About the Author

Michael Barrett has written about film for decades, and for more than 20 years wrote a monthly video column in the San Antonio Express-News. National publications include Video Watchdog, Nostalgia Digest and a colorful piece in Retro Cinema on American No-Sex Comedies. His film scripts include one about a wallaby and a zeppelin that’s had favorable reception. To read more of his work, check him out at PopMatters.

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