- Elisabeth Scharang’s film navigates mental trauma and healing through the symbolic lens of barren, lonely and rural winter landscapes and their woodlands
Something traumatic has driven former star-journalist Marian (Brigitte Hobmeier) back to the countryside. There, in her grandmother’s old farmhouse where the dust has settled for aeons and electricity is far from being heard of, she can find peace. But escaping from one personal hell doesn’t stop the chosen destination from opening out onto another abyss, long forgotten and repressed.
In Elisabeth Scharang’s Woodland, an adaptation of Doris Knecht’s novel of the same name, the core message is about dealing with one’s past, learning to forgive and having the courage to face one’s future. Premiered in Toronto, set to screen at Zurich and launching in Austrian cinemas by Filmladen Filmverleih today, 29 September, the film approaches these grave themes through sombre and barren landscapes, gloomy stares from local villagers and murky old houses, once proud estates in a region now forgotten by urbanisation.
“Why are you here”, is one of the questions Marian is repeatedly confronted with by her former childhood best friends Gerti (Gerti Drassl) and Franz (Johannes Krisch). She left them behind and disappeared in their youth. Now, not only does she not know how to live by the rules of the countryside, she also doesn’t care about fitting in. This might be interpreted as an emancipatory act of subtle feminism, but Woodland isn’t the story of a woman making her mark in a patriarchal society. Short flashbacks of Marian lying on the ground in a busy square in town while shots and screaming can be heard in the background, make it pretty clear that she’s a survivor of an attack. While Knecht wrote the original novel in 2015, it’s obvious that Scharang was inspired by the terrorist attack in Vienna in 2020.
Not only have these few seconds of terror caused Marian to drop her profession as a war and ecological crisis reporter, they’ve also meant that she can’t even go to the supermarket without suffering panic attacks. Scharang uses distorted images and hasty editing to underline these moments of disorientation, panic and helplessness. While one might assume it would be best for Marian to get professional help, her mental catharsis manifests differently, namely in her routine of trying to find food in her neighbourhood or taking long runs in the woods surrounding her house, a process which allows her to break free of all the pressure, find herself, and start putting the pieces back together… Even if that means avoiding her husband Gheorghe (Bogdan Dumitrache), who can’t quite understand why Marian won’t return to the city with him.
While Marian’s journey of healing might be at the centre of this slowly unwinding story, her reappearance also kickstarts her friends’ characters’ development. Drassl’s Gerti - a finely balanced character who’s a strong-minded carer for her in-need parents who has also succumbed apathetically to her destiny - gets the most dramatic moment of the movie when she finally confronts her abusive father. Franz, who never wanted to become a countryside dweller and is resembling his once resented father more and more each day, needs to let go of his stagnant ways.
There might not be much happening besides repeated daily routines of running, walking and verbal confrontations, but each character, once so lost in his or her own trauma, uses these moments of encounter and habitual chores to progress and heal. And it’s no symbolic coincidence that Scharang’s story begins in a murky autumn setting and sees her protagonists surviving the sullen, death-like kiss of winter, only for the film to end in a sun-filled late spring/early summer day.
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