There are two entry points to Elisabeth Scharang’s Woodland (2023). Since it is a mash between Doris Knecht’s novel Wald and Scharang’s own experience of witnessing a terrorist attack, you can see it as a way to deal with the past and also as the necessity to heal from survivors’ guilt. While those are both interesting leeways, it is Briditte Hobmeier’s exceptional performance that steers you into this muted character study. It is almost as if she has enveloped this woman in her own personal cloak of trauma. The release thus feels palpable, in spite of this inclination to lean onto less compelling elements in the story itself.
When we first meet Marian (Brigitte Hobmeier), she is all alone somewhere in the woods, skinny dipping. Our first interaction with her is with a scream. No words are then spoken for a long time as Joerg Widmer’s (a frequent collaborator of Terrence Malick) camera just notices her from her distance. She doesn’t feel lost, even though, at a casual glance, she might feel like it. In fact, when the camera actually closes up on her, you notice only one thing – a headstrong woman suffering from a deep-seated guilt of having survived while people around her perished. We see brief glimpses of the terrorist attack that shook her to the core, but Scharang is more interested in digging into the entire healing process, which doesn’t just happen with the latest trauma cleansing.
Thus, we witness an on-the-fly decision that Marian takes – she has flown away from society to her grandparent’s house in the village she grew up in. The farmhouse doesn’t just symbolize a home she left behind but a kind of freedom she chose for herself when she left it. However, she now returns to regain that freedom – at least spiritually, knowing full well that she will be facing the demons of her past, her mistakes, and her guilt, but also knowing that this discourse will help her understand the false safety net that she felt around her. One that was shattered in a matter of seconds when people around her were killed.
The healing process, as we know, is not an easy one either. The soul-searching that one needs to have only comes from the accepting of one’s own character. For Marian, it might need to be where she should confront being on her own. These moments of her being on her own are exceptionally shot.
A drunk sequence where she breaks down for the first time in this dilapidated, temporary home is able to say more than any of the interactions between people in the film. This is the reason why the film doesn’t exactly remain with you for a long time. Along with Marian being on her own, we see her trying to reconnect with her childhood friends Gerti (Gerti Drassi) & Franz (Johannes Krisch). The estranged relationship that she has with them is interesting, but I personally feel that they do not have the same power that the solitary sequences with Marian do. They feel repetitive and eager to drive a point across that could have easily made its way to you without much hassle.
In spite of this gripe I have with the film, Brigitte Hobmeier’s excellent turn stands tall. She is able to do so much more for Marian than what meets the eye. The prolonged sequences of her just going about the chores on the farmhouse or her dropping by the local cafe to meet people that remind her of a repressed past are punctuated with such an ethereal groundedness that you sit there in awe of her performance. The sequences where she lets the child inside her run wild are absolutely beautiful. There’s no lag in her performance – be it as a journalist who stands by what she believes in or as a vulnerable woman trying to forgive and forget the things that are pulling her apart; there’s no wrong beat here. I wish Woodland (2023) could match up to her or give us a well-rounded and truly satisfying experience.
Woodland was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival
Woodland (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, TIFF
Woodland (2023) Movie Cast: Brigitte Hobmeier, Gerti Drassl, Johannes Krisch, Bogdan Dumitrache