«What happens if my system collapses?»

Marian leaves the city. Without any thought, without any plans. An irresistible impulse propels her to the countryside. The terrorist attack in Vienna has made everyday life in the city unbearable for her. Twenty years earlier, a similar force had impelled her to leave the village where she grew up, and now this is where she returns. In WOODLAND, Elisabeth Scharang creates a force field of experiences where there is no movement for generations, yet everything can change in a second; her protagonist is brought to a point of
absolute zero – which is essential if she is to get her bearings afresh on the past and the future.

Your film WOODLAND is inspired by Doris Knecht's novel of the same name. In the film, as in the book, a woman in her 40s leaves her previous life behind and retreats to the abandoned house that was her grandparents’. What connects these two main characters, despite their different stories?
The two female characters, in the film and in the novel, are united by the same thought: What happens if my system collapses? This question is particularly familiar to people who work free lance and has even greater intensity for women who are also single mothers. Another feature the two characters share is being confronted with the unromantic aspect of escaping, of this forced exit from familiar, urban everyday life. In the novel the impetus is the financial crisis, in the film it is an inability to cope in the city after the trauma of a terrorist attack. I moved further away from the original material with each version of the screenplay. But I still ended up putting it in a drawer for a few months, because I couldn’t find the key to my main character. She was still a stranger to me. Shortly after the terrorist attack in Vienna, I rewrote the screenplay in just a few weeks, and it all fell into place. It’s difficult to write about a person who doesn’t know how to proceed. The method that worked for me was to describe what you don't usually describe: how everyday actions are performed. In the setting of the film, things that are otherwise taken for granted attain meaning. I knew it would be incredibly exciting to watch this woman master daily tasks. Writing it was far from easy. I didn't force my character into a plot; it was more that I followed her and was sometimes just as surprised about her next move as she was. We were able to walk that path together, and that was only possible after November 2, 2020.
What core experience did you work through with your main character, Marian, in this late stage of the screenplay?
I think there’s an initial core experience that I share with a lot of people, which was not talking about their experience that evening at all, or only with very few people, because nothing happened to them physically (like me). There were people who had been murdered or seriously injured, and in the immediate aftermath it was my impression that someone who remained unharmed physically has no right to victim status.  It was very difficult, but essential, to acknowledge to myself that something had happened to me. And that was only possible for me through writing. My body has an inner guidance system that intervenes when I take on too much. That was the case in November 2020. And that's also the case with my main character, Marian. Marian leaves the city due to a physical compulsion.
When Marian is sitting on the train on the way from Vienna to the forest region, all we see of her is a reflection in the window. Is it actually just part of her – the intangible part? – that is in motion here?
That's the right way to think about it. We’re accompanying a woman on a journey which will reassemble the shattered pieces of herself. There are always events in life that tear you apart inside. But that also gives you the opportunity to put yourself back together – and not necessarily in the original composition. What kind of person do I want to be? We usually only ask ourselves this question during a crisis. Experiencing the attack is a crisis like that. In the course of her journey, however, Marian comes to the conclusion that the real disintegration of her person wasn’t a response to this experience of terrorism but actually lies far deeper. And what she took onboard from that deeper experience is her pattern of reaction to it: I run away, I change my life, I don't examine it, because the pain is too great. Now she's reached the point where she can endure it. She’s in exactly the right place at the right time.
Did the character of Marian in the novel develop into a very personal character during the course of your adaptation?
There are many things I expected of the leading actress Brigitte Hobmeier. The fact that WOODLAND is such a personal film for me was a realization that only dawned on me during the very last days of shooting. Absurd. I wrote the script myself but still didn't actually feel how much it had to do with me. When we rehearsed the scene where she describes her experience of the attack, Brigitte was very uneasy about saying her lines knowing that the person who had this experience was standing right behind her. That moment gave me the opportunity to put the pieces of my own puzzle together and realize that I’d wanted nothing more than to be in the forest for those months. As Marian, Brigitte did a lot of things I’d like the courage to do, because it feels like ultimate freedom. Freedom in the sense of not needing so many things which are important in the city, such as recognition and everything that goes with it: things that drive you and sometimes consume you. The freedom to just let go, because I know that the dynamics of success and social recognition are so unsustainable and based on a set of values I don't share anyway. To withdraw. Knowing that it's only about being.
The forest plays an absolutely crucial visual role. What does the forest represent to you? Why did you choose to shoot during the autumn months?
WOODLAND begins in a phase of autumn which still contains within it all the fullness of spring and summer. The power of colors, nature and the seasons are the essence of the film. WOODLAND could have been told without dialogue, because nature depicts the inner journey of the character 1:1. The colorful trees represent the exterior elements like clothes, all the things we have in order to display ourselves. In late autumn this falls away, and purity remains; then it turns inwards as the first frost settles over the fields and seals up the earth. Nothing gets through, and introspection is left. The ground is hard, and so is the introspection. There is no safe space. The rain washes away a lot of things and also brings in a lot. The snow that covers everything also means there’s a period of rest for the farmers in the countryside. Winter is not a threatening time; it’s a time of rest and healing. Nature shows where Marian is at the moment and helps to bind this introspection to the outside. The touching beauty of nature is that it is simply there. The forest doesn’t operate on our chronology.
Marian and Gerti's life decisions are determined by the physical violence perpetrated by men. There’s an important moment when Marian is the first to strike during an altercation at the inn. What does it mean for a woman to take this first step towards violence?
I think any form of physical violence is a massive transgression. An essential point in Marian's story is that she shut off the experience of her mother's early death like an airtight capsule. When she enters the crowded inn, she’s struggling with a panic attack, and it is in precisely this situation that the farmer deliberately hurts her by making a sexist, derogatory comment about her mother. Marian's retaliation is like an explosion. So much comes together that she releases the tension in this way, which doesn't mean I think it's good. But I should also say that I always wanted to stage a pub brawl with a woman playing the leading role. What makes the aspect of domestic violence interesting in Gerti's life decision is the double-edged sword. Over the years, Gerti has assigned herself a role that relieves her, as the victim of years of violence from her father, of the decision to leave the farm and her parents. Marian confronts her with the question of why she has stayed despite everything. She looks at it and addresses it, which also fills Gerti with shame. Things become interesting in the relationship between the two women when something shifts, and Marian becomes dependent on her friend’s help. They experience moments when they each have to impose upon the other. As I was writing the screenplay, this friendship between the two women emerged for me as the core of the story.
What memories do you associate with the filming?
WOODLAND was the most beautiful shoot I've ever experienced. I loved the fact that I couldn’t control nature and had to adjust to everything. We took what was there and amended the shooting schedule again and again. Whether there was fog, sun, rain... it was a gift. It certainly wasn't always easy for the team. During the scene at the cemetery, we had a snowstorm which hurled hailstones horizontally into our faces. The storm was so loud, we had to yell at each other to communicate. There couldn’t have been better weather conditions for that scene. Incidentally, the dialogue there is all original sound; we didn't have to re-dub anything. So we followed nature, and it was always right. Two shooting blocks had been scheduled for the main shoot, but we were actually able to shoot everything in one block. There are no digital effects in this film; everything is pure nature. Marian's house and Gerti's house were located on a high plateau, and it was like a large walk-in film set. There was so much spirit and atmosphere in Marian's house, which bears witness to the life story of the real woman who was born there and died there.
Something that fits just as harmoniously into the whole is the music. How did Hania Rani get involved in the project?
With all my other films, I knew before shooting which film music I wanted to use, because the music is like another dialogue track for me. I had ideas about WOODLAND, but for a long time I didn't know what the film, the forest, would sound like. While we were editing, even though I rarely watch Youtube videos, I went to a 35-minute studio session of Hania Rani’s with electronics and piano. She has a way of making music where you can feel the person behind the sound at every second. She records her music extremely haptically, so you can hear every touch of the piano keys and every breath. At that time she was on a world tour and also working on the score for an international series. I wrote to her anyway and met her after a concert at the WUK in Vienna; I just wanted her to look at the rough cut, and... she agreed. It wasn't easy, because normally you go into editing with the music. In the case of WOODLAND, the final music was added bit by bit, right up until mixing. The entire team of sound design and mixing gave it their all there. But it's worth every second.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
August 2023

Translation: Charles Osborne

«I didn't force my character into a plot; it was more that I followed her and was sometimes just as surprised about her next move as she was.»