‘Ingeborg Bachman – Journey Into The Desert’ Review: Vicky Krieps’s Sensational Performance Leads Period Piece About Art, Love, And Suspicion [Berlin]

Feb 21, 2023

From “Rosa Luxemburg” in 1986 to 2012’s “Hannah Arendt,” the films of Margarethe Von Trotta, an icon of the New German cinema, have put strong female protagonists center-stage in renditions of German history. For her latest, Von Trotta paints a portrait of German poet Ingeborg Bachmann, author of essays, radio dramas, and opera libretti. Working across media and a doctor of philosophy, Bachmann was also an important figure in the women’s rights and liberation movement in post-war Germany. 
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Von Trotta bookends “Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert” with symbols of oppression and unchaining, respectively. For the film’s opening, the director composes a beautifully stylized scene where an alarming telephone call brings Ingeborg (Vicky Krieps) humiliation in the form of cackling and ridicule by her lover, Swiss playwright Max Frisch (Ronald Zehrfeld). Soon after, we see her recounting a dream to the therapist, one about a murderous dog called Max. Down the line, the film will close with a symbolic image full of radiating light. In between these two shots, there lay a multitude of micro-histories, all of which push against the conservative idea of what it was like to be an emancipated European woman artist in the 50s and 60s.
The film achieves its counter-narrative goal by intertwining numerous chronotopes and jumping back and forth through years and countries. However, most of the events take place between 1958 and 1964 and between Europe and Egypt. The most “present” storyline is the one set in the Sahara desert, a holiday destination Bachmann much hoped to visit for too long, and the further flashbacks take us to her hospitalization and emotional crisis, backtracking to the cause of it all: her tumultuous relationship with Max Frisch. When they meet for the first time, they share a sunset walk over the Seine. Bachmann quotes the French surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire in full, while Frisch only mumbles a line or two of the poem dedicated to young love on the very same bridge they’re both crossing. This discrepancy already foregrounds the distance between them and the games they’ll play at each other’s expense.
Vicky Krieps is more than perfect for the title role as her versatile acting style allows for minute changes in her expression, a softening of gestures and movements that can liquify even the harshest words that come out of Bachmann’s mouth. Throughout the film, Krieps plays Bachman composed and patient, devoted to a love that is not idealistic. In effect, her struggle with Frisch is one that’s quite relatable to any “modern” woman: the balance between submission and assertion, and the joys and pains vested in both. Von Trotta paints Bachman as a searching woman who values pleasure and excitement and has the capacity to fall in love (a vulnerability rarely free of stigma).
In line with these attributes, Krieps’ performance sidesteps the dangers of over-sentimentalizing her heroine, and in turn, imbues her with empathy and courage above all. In a significant sequence, Bachmann flips through a diary Frisch usually keeps locked away to only find herself: it turns out he’s been studying her for the purpose of literature. Kriep swiftly becomes a woman enraged at the prospect of becoming a muse, and this subtle example speaks volumes about a long tradition of (mostly male) artists reducing women to objects, even if they call them works of art. 
In response, Zehrfeld as Frisch channels some of the self-assured immediacy he brings to his roles in Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” and “Phoenix.” However, his presence tilts between comedic and acerbic, making the film’s true star is Vicky Krieps. On a formal level, it’s shot rather classically, with emphasis on the lead, the usual long-middle-close up shot structure, and slow zooms to make sure we are all equally drawn to Krieps. This may not be the best work of Austrian cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, but the film looks stylish within its period drama lens. However, Uli Simon‘s costumes are a real show-stealer, and if read as code for the protagonist’s mood and emotional state, they become much more than perfectly cut shoulderless summer dresses.
As the narrative move between Paris, Zurich, Rome, and Berlin, there’s a certain wondrous nostalgia in the air. That may well be Von Trotta’s filmmaking capturing bygones and the life of a woman who was much closer to her in age than the other subjects of her biopics. But this doesn’t mean the film is deeply wedded to its times, no, and the presence of Krieps gives it a playful, contemporary zing (one cannot help but think of “Corsage” from last year), and ideologically, it can easily be considered timeless by relevance. Maybe it’s that poetic quality and the sadness behind each and every instance when Bachmann gets asked why she doesn’t write poetry anymore. “I stopped [writing poetry] the moment I thought I may be good at it,” she says. That love and suspicion can coexist is the most profound unspoken truth in “Ingeborg Bachmann,” and Von Trotta’s biggest strength here is drawing out that paradox in the relationships between men and women, whether they are artists or not. [B]

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