TIFF 2023 | Woodland (Elisabeth Scharang, Austria) — Centrepiece

By Madeleine Wall

“What are you doing here?” Marian Malin (Brigitte Hobmeier) is asked by the locals, her husband, and herself. Fleeing Vienna, the prodigal child has returned to her grandparents’ farm seeking isolation—but she’s not welcome here, not because she’s a stranger, but rather because she knows too much.

Unraveling as a slow-burn mystery, Elisabeth Scharang’s Woodland is based on Doris Knecht’s book of the same name, and Scharang’s own experiences witnessing the 2020 Vienna terrorist attack. Marian is haunted by memories of shouting and gunfire, and turns to simple things to heal: running through the woods, sorting through family photos, shopping for groceries. Her attempts to escape her recent past have thrown her back into other, deeper histories, however. Not only do the members of the community resent her return, they want her to sell the farm; her rude neighbour Gerti (Gerti Drassl) is actually her childhood best friend, who has been struggling with her own demons. 

The two women reconnect cautiously, as Marian’s abrupt departure following her mother’s funeral several years ago reshaped Gerti’s own trajectory as well. Life here is shaped by domineering men, and Gerti has long been under the thumb of her abusive father. Now middle-aged and caring for elderly parents, Gerti is less interested in reminiscing, rather moving forward. Marian’s return spurs Gerti into action, but the violence Marian was fleeing can happen in the quiet countryside as well.

Fleshed out by Jörg Widmer striking’s cinematography, Woodland is deliberately minimal. We learn almost nothing about the terrorist attack outside of how it affected Marian, and nothing of her life in Vienna beyond a brief visit from her husband. In the process of leaving so much out, Scharang creates a distinct intimacy. Trauma is isolating, and these solitary figures against the vast landscape do need each other. For Marian, recovery is to be able to get another chance to act when she couldn’t before, to be brave when it matters.