First-rate Austrian drama is a damning diagnosis of the neurosis at the heart of contemporary society

David G. Hughes on Marie Kreutzer’s ‘The Ground Beneath My Feet’ (2019)

“Hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner” is the adumbrated offer from Communism, said Karl Marx in The German Ideology (1845). His utopian vision promised escape from alienating labour towards recreation and diversity of experience, a condition in which you can perform these activities “without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” 

Austrian drama The Ground Beneath My Feet / Der Boden unter den Füßen depicts the horrific extent to which Marx’s vision has failed to come to fruition. It depicts a postmodern world—our world—in which capitalist ideology is total and citizens are defined by alienating labour to an extent never before seen. Productivity is not even a means anymore, but simply an end in and of itself (“Fitter, happier, more productive” says the entrance to a gym, with productivity placed conspicuously as the dominant value). But no longer the blue-collar pursuits of Marx’s time, it’s the ideology of the white-collar professional class. 

Talking in big conceptual terms (MARX, CAPITALISM, IDEOLOGY) doesn’t do justice to the nuanced, engrossing and human manner in which The Ground Beneath My Feet negotiates its themes. There’s no oratory condemnation or moralistic fervour. Rather the pernicious nature of our contemporary world is revealed by the choice of sweetener over sugar, and low-calorie cake at the office party. Employees carry bags of pharmaceuticals and the gym is the modern-day church where sins are exorcised. Or exercised. Everything orbits the totalising belief in maximum productivity and a rejection of all vice. Except, of course, the moral variety. The capitalist stereotype we most associate with the on-screen yuppie was, at least, motivated by some form of debaucherous coke-addled pleasure. But to the new capitalists, even an intoxicant as old and harmless as wine is refused for fear of fogging the mind busy running the numbers. Recreation and pleasure are regarded as little more than a hindrance to professional advancement, and so is family. It would be a sci-fi scenario if it were not so real.

We are made a part of this puritan world thanks to corporate multinational employee Lola, played with astonishing intensity by Valerie Pachner (A Hidden Life). She’s obsessed about getting a promotion at her firm and will do as many night shifts as it takes (“A 48” is a braggadocious term amongst her go-getting colleagues for a sleepless two-day shift). Lola is frustrated by her hindering obligations as the carer to her suicidal sister Conny (Pia Hierzegger), institutionalised and suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Rather than be tainted by the association, Lola maintains a firm separation between work and her sole family member, flying between cities in secret. To the extent Lola ‘looks after’ her sister, which basically means paying for her treatment, we’re never sure if this is due to a dying ember of familial allegiance or the legal obligation thrust upon her. It’s clear that when Conny looks ready to come home, Lola would rather she stay, using the pretence of humanistic care to keep her in hospital.

To be fair to Lola, she’s up against it: the human body’s nonnegotiable inclination to get tired for one thing. But also unscrupulous competing colleagues (one male colleague flashes his penis as evidence of an inborn advantage), and a sister that, through no fault of her own, constantly reminds Lola of her fraught upbringing—a ‘nothing’ she’s desperate to escape. Even her lover Elise (Mavie Hörbiger) can’t be trusted, because she’s also her boss. In this world, love truly seems impossible. 

Director Marie Kreutzer has an active grasp of aesthetic appropriateness and uses locations wonderfully. Lola is Viennese, but she is more at home in the city of Rostock, which is shown and depicted with a morbid modernist malaise. The buildings are oppressively utilitarian to the extent that there’s little to separate office space from hospital visits. Indeed, that’s likely the point. While Lola disowns her sister (“We’re nothing alike”), the question of who is in fact the mentally unhealthy and self-destructive one becomes blurred, a question made more prominent by the fact that it could be hereditary. Madness has always been socially prescribed, and The Ground Beneath My Feet is one of the most effective dramatisations of this Foucauldian sociology I’ve seen. In one scene, a doctor catches up to Lola as she’s leaving the hospital to discuss her sister’s case. It’s only when a hospital employee grabs him by the arm and encourages the patient to return to his room is the ruse revealed. It’s a convincing impression. But then, don’t we all perform our lives similarly?

Lola’s neurosis is not only permissible, but it’s also celebrated and encouraged as socially useful—a point made by Austria’s own son, Dr Freud. Meanwhile, Conny is placed out of sight because her condition is useless to the flow of capital and the operation of society. Kreutzer’s diagnosis of the illness across our contemporary global society is devastatingly convincing. Even the pets are sick; in one scene Lola offloads the responsibility of a feline to a pet hotel and is told not to worry as it has “a therapeutic approach”. The absence of beauty, spiritual values or even human privacy (doctors appointments are interrupted, phones are constantly ringing, and walls have all but been replaced by glass surfaces) creates a grippingly bleak picture—the madness is hegemonic. 

The film creates a sense of pernicious, meaningful details, and the burn-out spiral Lola begins to experience is agonising. It doesn’t quite tie up its threads in any assured or completed way, and while the end is shocking it also feels morally predictable. But this is an experience that never purported to be medicinal. As the film itself has shown, medicine designed to cure has become little more than a tool to maximise performance. So perhaps, for once, we could do without bullet points and goals. In the spirit of wonderful uselessness, let’s just say this is a great film and that’s all there is to it.

The Ground Beneath My Feet is available from 15 June 2020.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.