Director: Bettina Oberli (Switzerland). Year of Release: 2021
Switzerland, somewhere near Lake Zürich. A busload of women has arrived from Gdansk for badly-paid seasonal work. They all seem to know each other and make their farewells in Polish. Each of them is about to be picked up and taken to a house which contains way more wealth than they’ll earn in a lifetime. The camera focusses in on one of them, who we will soon learn is called Wanda.
Wanda works for an elderly couple who live in a villa on the bank of the lake. The Portuguese maid has returned home, and decided to start a family. Wanda learns that her workload has just gone up. She negotiates with her boss Elsa, and gains a little extra money, but it’s still a pittance. It’s not that Elsa knowingly underpays her, more that she can’t understand what its like to work for a living.
Wanda’s main job is to look after Elsa’s husband Josef, a former businessman who is approaching his seventieth birthday. Josef has had a stroke and is now largely wheelchair bound. Wanda feeds him, she takes him to the lake, she helps him in and out of his wheelchair and to stretch his limbs. On the side, she is also having sex with him for money, but his family don’t know about that.
Josef seems a nice enough person, as the rich go, and prefers the company of Wanda to his family – at one point he begs Wanda not to leave him with those lunatics. But his relationship with Wanda is unequal and based on power. I’m sure that Josef feels that Wanda is enjoying the sex, but one look at her face shows that she is going through hell. But now that she is a single mother, she needs the money to help subsidise her kids and unemployed parents.
Once we see Josef’s family, we can tell why he has reservations about them. The son Gregi isn’t so bad, in an effete way. He’s due to inherit the family business when Josef dies, but he’d rather be out in the countryside imitating bird calls. He also seems to have a bit of a shy crush on Wanda. Elsa also seems pleasant enough, although she’s obsessed with status and what the neighbours would think.
But then there’s Josef and Elsa’s daughter, Sophie, a sour faced racist. She continually tells anyone who’s prepared to listen that money is all that matters to the Poles. What she means is that money is all that matters to poor people, for whom it makes the difference between whether their children eat or not. Sophie doesn’t care about money because it’s always there to spend. When Wanda uses Sophie’s laptop to talk to her 2 sons in Poland, Sophie looks ready to kill her.
Things come to a head when Sophie catches Wanda stuffing money into her mattress. She brings together the family to put Wanda on trial. Unable to explain where Wanda really got the money, Josef makes up a story about buying a cow for her family in (urban) Poland. This provokes a number of farcical jokes as the film progresses and Wanda’s family brings an actual cow to Switzerland. Warning: Swiss (and German for that matter) comedy is not always great with farce.
Wanda finds that she is pregnant from Josef, which is news to Josef as he thought he was infertile. Elsa worries about the disgrace to the family, and Gregi looks put out that Wanda could have sex with someone else. The family urge Wanda to have an abortion, but she’s a Catholic (and not in the pragmatic way that they are). So, Sophie’s lawyer husband comes up with a plan. They pay Wanda for the child that they are unable to produce.
This could all be the basis for biting satire – more than one review compared Wanda. mein Wunder with Parasite, to which it is inferior in every way. The problem is that the film isn’t angry enough. It wants to understand the rich family, to see its point of view. Which means that, after tentatively raising some questions about inequality of wealth, it retreats apologetically.
The film ends with all sorts of family members acting a whole lot nicer than they’ve been. I think we are supposed either to believe that they have sincerely changed, or that they were never as bad as they looked. It felt to me to be a deliberate cop out – ok, we’ve had our fun saying that the super-rich may not all be that nice, but now we must accept that they’re people too. It’s not a good look.
There is nothing bad about Wanda, mein Wunder. It Is perfectly well acted, and the characters are engaging enough. But the story is too slight, too devoid of meaning. Not convinced enough to scream about class inequality, it ends up being a light satire on how funny those overprivileged people are, and how people like Wanda are the salt of the earth. That’s as maybe, but we need a little more from our cinema.