Today one would call such love toxic. When Ingeborg Bachmann and Max Frisch – she the celebrated poet, he the famous playwright – separated in 1963, a destroyed woman was left behind. Sick, addicted to pills, depressed. Five years earlier, the two self-confident, intellectual, poetic people had entered into a passionate relationship. For Ingeborg Bachmann, this love ended in hell, her soul a desert.
At least that’s how Margarethe von Trotta’s film title “Journey into the Desert” can be interpreted. The 81-year-old’s feature film tells the story of this unhappy relationship from multiple perspectives. The focus is on Bachmann’s trip to Egypt, on which the young poet and filmmaker Adolf Opel took her in 1964 – shortly after the painful end of her love for Max Frisch.
Jealousy, old role clichés and writing competition
The Austrian has always wanted to go to the desert. At the beginning of the film she reveals this secret to Max Frisch. And the Swiss replies that he will show it to her. That’s meant lovingly, but it’s also a warning sign. Yes, Frisch will show Bachmann the desert, but differently than intended. Due to, among other things, jealousy, old role clichés and writing competition, shared love turns from a rushing sea of feelings into a desert that swallows up everything worth living.
The second level of the film is flashbacks. The film tells scenes of the relationship more or less chronologically: getting to know each other, the competition, the passion, arguments and reconciliation, Zurich and Rome. Von Trotta portrays Bachmann as a beautiful woman who turns men’s heads (which is well documented), and Max Frisch as a jealous and selfish man for whom Bachmann should please cook dinner and who constantly bangs loudly on his typewriter with one finger . That Ingeborg Bachmann can’t work because of the noise in the shared house in Zurich? In von Trotta’s reading, he doesn’t care.
Didn’t know the correspondence before filming: Director Margarethe von Trotta.
Ronald Zehrfeld plays Max Frisch with his massive body as a rock, an egomaniacal poet, a somewhat idiotic, self-absorbed man who gives calculated-looking compliments and quotes from his own books. A radiant, crooning Vicky Krieps, who quotes Apollinaire and playfully enriches the film, smiles away many problems as Ingeborg Bachmann, fluctuating between the self-confident woman and the fear of losing her love Max Frisch.
Last year, the complete surviving correspondence between Ingeborg Bachmann and Max Frisch appeared for the first time. It was a sensation. Contrary to what is clear in this correspondence, the film is unable to show what was special about this relationship. Since the letters were published, the very crude comparison between the two in the film – he is the “monster”, as he is also called in the film, she is the victim – is no longer tenable. It would also be too easy.
Margarethe von Trotta had no access to the correspondence
Von Trotta’s portrayal of the two literary stars slips into role clichés. The complex and complicated nature of both personalities is not even remotely apparent in the feature film. Margarethe von Trotta publicly regretted at the Berlinale, where the film had already been shown, that she was not allowed to read the letters before their film was released. Perhaps her film would have been different if she had known about the correspondence.
But regardless of this: the individual scenes, less the images from the desert than the flashbacks, remain strangely factual and inanimate. The viewer doesn’t feel much of passion, whether loving or arguing. Margaretha von Trotta deals with the love of the two poets rather than filling it with life. In the second half of the film, Zehrfeld and Krieps thaw in their roles, but overall this film unfortunately remains rather slow and weak, instead of passionately condensing one of the most fascinating, mysterious love stories onto the screen.