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Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert (Ingeborg Bachmann – Reise in die Wueste)

Austrian poet releases herself from the shackles of marriage as she grapples with multiple loves - Margarethe von Trotta presents her gentle new biopic (starring Vicky Krieps) at the 73th Berlin International Film Festival (and then at Tallinn Black Nights)

Both the veteran German Margarethe von Trotta and rising Luxembourgish actress Vicky Krieps are firmly on familiar territory. Von Trotta has previously directed two female biopics to great results: Marianne and Juliane in 1981 and then Rosa Luxembourg five years later. And Krieps plays the second empowered historical figure from Austria in less than a year (she impersonated Empress Elisabeth in Marie Kreutzer’s Corsage just last year, for which she won the Un Certain Regard Best Performance Award in Cannes). With such an explosive duo, not much could go wrong. And it doesn’t. Journey into the Desert is an elegant and moving drama, if also a fairly conventional one.

The real-life Ingeborg Bachmann lived from 1926 to 1973, but the film focusses exclusively on her youth. The young poetess travels between Zurich, Berlin, Rome and the Egyptian desert as she meets three different lovers and seeks different types of affection. In fact, she was never simultaneously with the three males, but because the film zigzags back and forth in time, von Trotta gives the loose impression that Krieps’s character is living a polyamorous life. It’s only towards the end of the film that the chronology of the events becomes more or less clear.

Bachmann is deeply infatuated with writer Max Frisch (Ronald Zehrfeld), however she refuses any sort of legal recognition. She claims that “fascism begins in the relationship between a man and a woman”, thus vigorously shunning marriage. She purports to have rejected the bourgeois institution ever since she was a little child. Ingeborg is strong-minded and independent, a behaviour very uncommon for women at the time. Austria’s most successful female poet of the 20th century (and perhaps the only one of her gender to achieve widespread critical and commercial acclaim at her time) confidently smokes cigarettes and approaches males at her own accord.

Max and Ingeborg’s relationship isn’t always a rosy one. The fact that they both have to constantly seek inspiration for their latest writing interferes with their ability to liaise romantically with each other, and this could also expose their most profound wounds. Ingeborg describes Max’s loud typewriter as a “kalashnikov”, but it isn’t the noise that’s killing her, but instead the fact that the two lovers tacitly compete with one another. Irgeborg’s success makes Max very jealous; and the female poet herself isn’t a huge fan of her partner’s creations. Plus, she hates living in Zurich. She dreams of moving to Rome, a city where she feels wholly and liberated.

But it is in the Egyptian desert that Ingeborg finds redemption with younger and extremely handsome lover Adolf Opel (Tobias Reich). This is also where she experiences sexual liberation. It wasn’t uncommon for European writers to engage in carnal adventures in Northern Africa in the 2oth century. Jean Genet set residence in Morocco, where he famously encountered a string of men and found inspiration for his work.

Krieps is very convincing as a quietly confident woman with a latent rage and an unquenchable thirst for new exploits. Her character is capable of seducing and controlling man with a mere grimace. She is also very skilled with tongues. The multilingual actress (who spoke fluent German, English, French and Hungarian in Corsage) now adds Italian to her broad linguistic spectrum. Von Trotta has once again demonstrated her ability to dissect empowered, left wing Germanic women. The strength and resolution of these women is applicable to both politics (Rosa, Marianne and Juliane) and literature (Ingeborg).

Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert showed in the Official Competition at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. The 81-year-old filmmaker is a regular presence at the Berlinale, having showcased her first film in the event exactly 40 years ago. It shows in the Best of Festivals section of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.


By Victor Fraga - 20-02-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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