Right from its opening moments, Austrian director Elisabeth Scharang’s Woodland is visually arresting, commanding one’s attention. Which is fortunate as the film is light on dialogue and primarily concerns the isolating experience of a woman living alone in wooded country. Through jagged memories that pierce the placid exterior of the film and our protagonist, we uncover the buried traumas and demons she is running away from. Or running towards, as it turns out. In her native hometown, a reckoning awaits her, that just might set her free.
Adapted from Doris Knecht’s novel Wald and inspired by Scharang’s personal experience, Woodland charts Marian’s (Brigitte Hobmeier) return to the small agrarian town she grew up in. She sets up camp in her abandoned family home––cobwebbed, without electricity, and freezing––and only occasionally charges her cell phone at the local pub. Her desire to disconnect from the world seems paramount. Through sudden flashes in the manner of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, we discover the source of her PTSD: she’s a survivor of the 2020 Vienna mass shooting that resulted in 27 casualties including 4 deaths. The attacks are recreated in brief, discreet snippets that highlight the precarious arbitrariness of life and her survivor’s guilt.
This is already potent, fraught material but Scharang adds a larger B storyline concerning Marian’s re-entry into the society she deserted decades ago. The locals are skeptical of her intentions-–she’s a journalist and has written unflatteringly about the community before. She faces open hostility and even gets punched in the face during a heated moment at the pub. Her two best friends from childhood, Gerti (Gerti Drassl) and Franz (Johannes Krisch) are also estranged from her, leaving her adrift––literally––as she spends her time hiking through the forests and skinny-dipping in the lake.
There is a deliberate opacity to Marian that originates more from Scharang’s filmmaking than Hobmeier’s performance. It is admirable to ask viewers to project their feelings onto the character rather than spoon-feeding them. But, Scharang arguably pushes Marian’s inscrutability too far, preventing investment in her quest for closure. Thus, even the gradual thawing of her relationship with her friends doesn’t land with any appreciable impact. We cooly observe the events of the film rather than viscerally participating in them.
Additionally, as Scharang devotes almost the entirety of Woodland to her conventional B storyline, she squanders the opportunity to explore much more interesting and topical subject matter––the psychological damage wrought by terrorist attacks that are much too common these days. This narrative strand is primarily present to set up Marian’s return home and isn’t meaningfully explored at any great length. We’re left with the impression of a real-life tragedy being used to add gravity to an otherwise rote tale. Which is surprising given that Scharang herself witnessed the Vienna attacks. In the novel, Marian’s return is predicated by a financial crisis. Scharang has altered Marian’s motivation but hasn’t sufficiently integrated the trauma aspect, making it seem tacked on and perfunctory.
Narrative misgivings aside, Woodland is hard to fault for its stunning widescreen images, framed with an obvious eye for beauty and spectacle. German cinematographer Jörg Widmer has already shot noteworthy films like Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life and Wim Wenders’s Pina. He also just about managed to elevate Benjamin Millepied’s Carmen from the doldrums earlier this year. His work here is similarly immaculate. The forest surroundings, the snow-covered plains, and the vast open spaces of this rural community are photographed with grandeur and flair, lending a sense of scope to this otherwise modest production.
Scharang’s exploration of a traumatized survivor isn’t entirely successful or insightful. But her innate talent for the visual language of cinema makes her one to watch.
Woodland premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.