‘Ingeborg Bachmann — Journey Into the Desert’ Review: Vicky Krieps Shines in Margarethe von Trotta’s Lackluster Literary Biopic

As one of Germany’s premier female directors since the 1970s, Margarethe von Trotta is no stranger to stories of women, who, like her, have defied conventions in milieus typically dominated by men.

Whether portraying the life and death of a revolutionary socialist (Rosa Luxemburg), a groundbreaking philosopher (Hannah Arendt) or a medieval nun, composer and botanist (Vision), many of von Trotta’s best movies have been carried by protagonists who refuse to bow down to gender and social norms.

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This was certainly the case with Ingeborg Bachmann, the celebrated Austrian poet and writer who lived defiantly against her time and wound up paying the price for it, dying prematurely at the age of 47.  Played by an illuminating Vicky Krieps, she’s the centerpiece of this handsomely mounted but rather stolid period piece, which chronicles Bachmann’s cantankerous doomed romance with Swiss playwright Max Frisch and the trip she takes to the desert to forget about love and perhaps find herself again.

Screening in Berlin’s main competition, the 80-year-old von Trotta’s 18th feature should easily appeal to local arthouses, especially those catering to older viewers. But neither Bachmann nor Frisch are household names outside of German-speaking territories, which may make this tasteful yet stuffy affair a tougher sell abroad.

After a brief opening that shows the lovelorn Bachmann on what may be her deathbed, the film uses a flashback structure to recount two major events in the author’s life. One is her voyage, accompanied by the young writer and filmmaker, Adolf Opel (Tobias Resch), to an unnamed Middle Eastern country in order get some air and get over the depression of a monumental breakup, which is eating her alive.

The other, which is intercut with all the polished desert sequences, reveals the tulmultous five-year affair Bachmann had with Frisch (Ronald Zehrfeld) — an affair that starts off charmingly but ends like The War of the Roses for high-society intellectuals, with the two going at it in various mouthwatering Swiss or Italian décors (courtesy of Su Erdt) and the chicest of costumes (courtesy of Uli Simon).

The film is so refined and filled with good taste, not to mention poetry citations and dialogue rendered with quotations marks, that it often feels inert. This is always a pitfall with biopics about famous authors — there’s nothing duller than watching a writer write — but what’s also problematic is that the Bachmann-Frisch story seems destined to fail from the start, so incompatible are their personalities.

Already a feted poet when they first meet, Bachmann falls into Frisch’s arms after a performance of one of his plays in Paris, wooed by his words and literary confidence. But after a very brief honeymoon, Frisch shows himself to be quite the bore: He appears to want nothing more than for Bachmann to settle down in his impeccably designed Zurich residence and sit around while he types up a storm of new material, his keys clacking so loudly that Bachmann can’t concentrate on her own work.

This, of course, won’t fly with the poetess, who takes off to Rome for a breather and reconnects with Hans Werner Henze (Basil Eidenbenz), a composer with whom she seems to be having an on-and-off fling. And yet Bachmann can’t help but go back to the jealous and callous Frisch, trying her best to make things work. She’s truly in love with the man despite all his flaws, but she’s also in love with her writing, and putting two famous authors in the same small house becomes a recipe for disaster.

Trying to build drama out of this is no easy task, and although von Trotta gets some traction from the flashbacking structure, not to mention the fine performances and settings, there just isn’t enough energy to bring her film to life. And while the desert framing device stuffs us with attractive visuals, Bachmann’s affair with the younger Opel leads to a grand conclusion that’s supposed to involve the writer’s own sexual liberation but feels uncomfortably like exotic Orientalism.

The saving grace of Ingeborg Bachmann is Krieps, who not only switches effortlessly between German, French and Italian as her character hops between countries and continents, but makes her constant inner turmoil feel both real and painful. “You’ll make me unhappy, but I’ll take that risk,” Bachmann says to Frisch on one of their first dates, while she sums up her feelings about romance toward the end of the film when she says: “Fascism is the first element in a relation between a man and a woman.”

This is not someone who took things lightly, whether it was love or literature, and Krieps portrays Bachmann as a person who kept longing for better, even if she seemed to know deep down it would never come. As the portrait of a liberated woman who made her way in the very masculine world of writers — a sentiment echoed in a scene where Bachmann makes a speech to a room full of grim, tuxedo-clad gentlemen — von Trotta’s film is certainly pessimistic, especially about the toll the personal side takes on the professional one, and vice versa. But Krieps manages to give it some hope.

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