‘Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert’ review: Vicky Krieps disappears in Margarethe von Trotta’s elegant return to cinema | Berlinale
Margarethe von Trotta’s latest film is a graceful triumph of modern European cinema. Vicky Krieps is the window into the heart of von Trotta’s film, she gives an unrestrained and emotional performance that is rife with subtlety. The opening sets up Ingeborg Bachmann’s story, beginning with a shot of Bachmann as she walks towards the sound of a telephone ringing. She steps into a darkened room, picks up the phone and listens to the caller, who taunts her with endless laughter. As this happens, the camera pans round, revealing Krieps’ face before she steps back into the engulfing darkness. This stylised opening is a great visualisation of Bachmann’s inner thoughts and the perfect way to introduce the audience to the story.
Ingeborg Bachmann (Vicky Krieps) is a world-famous Austrian poet, known for her poems in the German language. She is rebellious and free in nature, yet she is plagued with loneliness. Max Frisch (Ronald Zehrfeld), her husband, is a Swiss playwright. He lives life in a restrained, conservative manner, happy with his life in Zürich. The two, despite being very different in nature, fall in love upon their first encounter in Paris, 1958. Bachmann moves her life to Zürich, but it becomes evidently clear early on into their relationship that they are not a match.
But everything changes for Bachmann as she is visited by a young man from Vienna. She is invited to tag along on his forthcoming journey to Egypt, which she happily accepts as it has always been a dream of hers. In the desert, she is able to reignite her freeing spirit, reflect on her past and put her trauma to bed. The locations of the film are extremely important, as they emphasise, in their own way, Bachmann’s state of mind. Entering the desert, she is liberated from Europe’s enclosure. Von Trotta makes great use of the metaphorical and literal presence of Egypt’s deserts; they represent the freedom that is searched for.
The beautiful landscapes of Switzerland, the romanticism of Rome, the greyness of Berlin and the endless deserts of Egypt are sumptuously captured by Austrian cinematographer Martin Gschlacht. The film is lit in such a beautiful way, Gschlacht sculpts the light to emphasise emotion. When it’s sunny and bright, Bachmann is invigorated with life, primarily in her adopted home of Rome, Italy. When she is down and unmotivated, Gschlacht’s light is dim and contrasty, highlighting her isolation. There is a true magic to the film’s shots as it perfectly externalises Bachmann’s emotions in a tender and non-intrusive way. It never attempts to do anything too crazy, beyond the film’s opening scene, as it inherently has a splendor due to the attention to the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings.
One of the most poetic and beautifully evocative pairing of visuals occurs as von Trotta introduces the titular desert. Krieps’ face is obscured behind a dirty window that is closed as she looks on at the endless desert. This comes full circle by the end of the film, as von Trotta almost duplicates the shot but this time with Bachmann opening the window, letting the audience in on her emotions. This repeated shot emphasises the freedom that her journey into the desert has given her, the desert is her salvation.
Vicky Krieps is an inspired choice to play Ingeborg Bachmann, she has recently been revolutionising her image in German-language cinema. She has proven to be one of the best actors currently gracing German-language cinema, especially as this film comes after Krieps’ applauded performance as Empress Elisabeth of Austria in the BAFTA-nominated Corsage. As Bachmann, Krieps goes deep into her torment, acting on a tender line between her rebellious, freeing nature and her vulnerability. She is backed by an excellent ensemble of talented actors who prop up her performance throughout.
The film has a non-linear structure that at first can be a little confusing, but all becomes clear shortly after. Von Trotta has structured the film in a genius and engaging manner. The choice to fracture the story allows staggered insight into Bachmann’s mind, showcasing the ups and downs in an unnatural and straightforward way. There are three main storylines; one in Switzerland, one in Italy and one in Egypt. The difference in location are snippets into her psyche as she progressively takes more and more control back in her life. The desert not only frees her mind, but importantly gives her romantic and sexual liberation. This is a far fetched reality from what she is used to with bourgeois men, specifically her Swiss husband, and their conservative values.
Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert is a well-rounded, meaningful film with its finger on the pulse of its true purpose throughout. Margarethe von Trotta never loses sight of anything as she crafts this elegant film. This is a remarkable film to remember, hopefully it garners the attention it deserves post-Berlinale. One can only pray that von Tretta doesn’t wait long until her next feature because her latest is without a doubt the stand out of the Berlin Film Festival’s lineup thus far.
This review is from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival.