“Compassion is a weakness, isn’t it?” yells a homeless woman at polished business consultant Lola Wegenstein (Valerie Pachner, “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe”), for refusing to give her spare change, making reference to what she assumes the cutthroat world of suits is like. She is not wrong, and Lola, an incredibly capable professional continually undermined in male-dominated environments, knows it too well.
That glorification of heartless assertiveness for career advancement — expected in men and demanded of women — is incompatible with the inherent vulnerability of the human mind. Still, in highly competitive settings, ruthlessness is rewarded while any indication of softness is despised. In “The Ground Beneath My Feet,” the superbly calibrated new feature from Austrian writer-director Marie Kreutzer, the clash between these opposite approaches to life and work is interpreted as an ambivalent psychological thriller enriched with searing social commentary.
A rising ace at a firm in charge of overseeing layoffs and unpopular transitions to make struggling companies more viable, Vienna native Lola appears always in control, even when a hurricane of job-related stress and emotional exhaustion brews within her in silence. Normalized 48-hour shifts and constant meetings devour her time, and she embraces them. She has perhaps internalized her feelings; in order to outshine the mediocre men, her performance must be indisputable. Sexism, she knows, lurks — less vocal in this day and age, perhaps, but nonetheless ready to pounce.
That’s why Lola adamantly hides both her romantic relationship with Elise (Mavie Hörbiger), her superior and a cerebral woman more attuned to what the male establishment desires, and her sister Conny’s (Pia Hierzegger) recent suicide attempt that’s kept her traveling between Rostock, Germany, and a mental hospital in her homeland. Lola is Conny’s legal guardian — a burdensome responsibility that conflicts with her fast-paced lifestyle, especially as she is unable to fully compartmentalize her personal life away from the office.
In Kreutzer’s acute screenplay, every line of dialogue and interaction is charged with intention, to weave a narrative that makes Lola question her sanity, her abilities, and the loyalty of those on whom she thought she could count. As she slaves away finalizing a major project, phone calls (presumably from Conny) blow up her phone and her nerves. Is her sister taunting her in retribution for ignoring her pleas to live with her, or are there outside forces gaslighting her? Kreutzer tantalizes with horror-like sequences that could result in a jump scare but instead remain grounded in their ambiguity. Conny represents Lola’s only connection to the chaos she so fears.
Lola moves from one clean-cut room to the next: offices, hospitals, airports, and hotels, all transitional spaces matching the film’s aesthetic, one as formal and colorless as her employer expects her to be. The sun rarely shines, making her disciplined exercise routines almost a ceremonial affair, likely the only thing preventing her from spiraling out of her carefully planned orbit. Cinematographer Leena Koppe captures Lola mostly in wide shots — walking or running with determination, always going somewhere without a second to waste — or in tight close-ups honoring the actress’ expressive features. We are perpetually either too far from or too close to her.
How Lola is photographed aligns with the contradictory messaging she receives: on the one hand, she is told her demeanor is extremely rigid and focused solely on delivering on her obligations, but the moment her guard is down, she is made to feel an unstable cretin, which in her employer’s eyes attests to the stereotypical argument that women are overpowered by their feelings. She is always too distant or too intense, never right for such dehumanizing expectations — to which, of course, men in the team are not subjected.
Pachner’s eyes are astonishing windows into what Lola wishes to conceal. Everything that she won’t say gets conveyed in a single stare. Every time she wakes up terrified, when she looks angrily in the mirror not recognizing herself, or as she lies to a doctor about her family’s history, her gaze projects her internal state with magnificent accuracy. Giving one of the most essential and intellectually demanding performances in any movie this year, Pachner is a volcano always on the verge of eruption, quiet and imposing even if burning with pent-up frustration. The strength in her perceptive on-screen work is only matched by what Hierzegger (who resembles Charlotte Gainsbourg) does as Conny, with rage morphing into desolation as her lonely fate sinks in.
Deliberately, even if Kreutzer’s film grapples partially with the ways the patriarchy tries to shape women into its macho models of success, Lola is much more influenced by the female forces in her life, for better and sometimes for worse. Elsie, whose allegiance Lola questions, surprises as a subtle advocate for the destigmatization of mental disorders, and in Birgit (Michelle Barthel), a young co-worker, she sees how women without her connections are disposed of as second-rate resources. In turn, Lola’s scenes with Conny put into perspective the guilt imposed on the former for pursuing her potential.
Through all the catastrophes that obstruct her path, the sound of Lola’s shoes hitting the ground serves as a guiding marching drum. Her steps are loud and always forward, never stopping to dwell on the past, even if sometimes, like the rest of us, she should. In the endless race we are running, we push pain down and favor productivity, but trauma is tireless, and there’s only so much Lola can run. “The Ground Beneath My Feet” is essential viewing for our anxiety-ridden times.