With the huge surge in public knowledge regarding mental health in recent times, it’s refreshing to see a film that finally does the issue justice. Sonja Heiss’s Hedi Schneider is Stuck takes a truly genuine and touching look at the effects of mental illness on a family. However before I go on, I’d just like to clarify that I in no way consider myself in any way an expert on the topic of mental illness nor would I ever consider myself entitled to say what’s true to life and what isn’t, when discussing a film like this. Perhaps the best way to consider this is simply a review by an outsider looking in.
The film tells the story of Hedi Schneider, a young woman leading an ordinary life with her husband Uli and young son Finn. The first scene opens with a chirpy almost chick-lit type humour, which only makes Hedi’s transition later on, all the more difficult to watch. Unlike a conventional mental health film, Hedi’s life doesn’t come ‘crashing down’ so much as it seems to come to a halt (hence the title). A series of unrelated events in Hedi’s life start building up, causing her to experience panic attacks. These constant attacks eventually lead her to be diagnosed with clinical depression, and it turn she becomes hooked on emergency tranquilisers, making it impossible for her to go to work or to enjoy spending time with her son.
Unlike the way a lesser film would, the film never makes Hedi out to be an angel just because of her condition. Heiss clearly didn’t want Hedi to be seen as merely as the victim in the story. We watch as Uli initially tries his best to help his wife get through her worsening mental state. However, due to Hedi’s constant panic attacks, he soon can’t leave her alone in the house to the point where he has to turn down his life-long dream-job of working in Namibia. The contrast between Hedi and Uli’s stories highlights the all-too-real dilemma for those affected by mental illness: Hedi’s genuine fears of dying and being alone cause her to retreat into herself, putting a huge strain on Uli, who eventually becomes torn between feelings of heart break for his wife’s condition and resentment for what her condition is doing to his own life.
During the panel discussion following the film’s screening, Heiss noted how few films there are about mental illness. And while this may give the impression that we live in an insensitive society, I think the reality is that films that discuss mental health issues are often incredibly difficult to watch. The reality is that mental illness is torturous for those who experience it as well as for the people close to them. Unfortunately, this means that if directors want to make a film about mental illness, they have to choose between two rather bleak options. Option one: make a film that is dark in places but ultimately uplifting with a completely farcical happy-ever-after, don’t-stop-believing ending or option two: make a gritty in-your-face unblinking portrait of mental illness that is so unapologetically pessimistic that audiences almost feel violated by the end of the film. This is where Heiss’s film shines. Hedi’s journey throughout the film is harrowing to watch but the film never actually feels that gloomy. There’s no dooming orchestral swells here, instead the majority of the music in the film is rather quirky and upbeat, breaking up the film nicely and in a way, showing how life still happily goes on around Hedi. The acting is superb (upsettingly so), as the back and forth between Laura Tonke and Hans Löw in the film just feels so natural. It wouldn’t do the film justice to simply call it a black comedy because it’s so much more than that. The film deals with themes of love, self-healing and forgiveness but more importantly, it just does it so effortlessly. This is the kind of film that could only be made by someone who’s lived through it all before, and it will undoubtedly become one of the mental health films by which all others will inevitably be judged.