One wonders what Ingeborg Bachmann — the celebrated Austrian poet, author, linguist and thinker who became a darling of the midcentury, continental European literary set — would make of the staunchly old-fashioned Margarethe von Trotta biopic that now bears her name. She might be happy to be portrayed by Vicky Krieps — who among us would not be? She might be gratified by the occasional mention of one of her poems or lectures, and the nice amber tinge to Martin Gschlacht’s stately photography. Or she might be justifiably miffed that for all she achieved across a glittering, eccentric literary career, it is her rocky personal life and the men who rocked it, that are the film’s sole, stultifying focus.
Then again, the movie’s Bachmann would be unlikely to have much time to think on the issue at all, being far too busy agonizing over the grand dramatic tragedy of a soured romance. Even before the film’s title appears, we understand that this is the tack von Trotta’s melodramatic screenplay will take. Waking from a black dream in a white hospital room, Bachmann (Krieps) describes her nightmare about a murderous dog to a psychiatrist. “Does that dog have a name?” inquires the doctor. “Max,” she murmurs, eyes wide.
Some years earlier, Bachmann is in Paris at the opening of a new play by Swiss writer Max Frisch (Ronald Zehrfeld). A besotted Frisch has arranged to meet the already famous poetess, who looks resplendent in an off-the-shoulder pink taffeta number (costume designer Uli Simon at least has some fun with Bachmann’s scrumptious wardrobe). Over the course of the evening they wander the city, drink in a cafe and fall in love on a bridge, largely, apparently, because they can both recite the same poem. “Why did I choose Apollinaire?” wonders Bachmann years later to Adolf Opel (Tobias Resch), the post-Frisch companion who will take her on her restorative trip to Egypt. “The poem is called ‘The Song of the Poorly Loved.’”
Switching around in time, we follow the whirlwind courtship, and her move to Zurich to live with him, while her later trip to the desert with Opel unfolds in parallel. In between, there are some nicely observed scenes of domestic discord in the Bachmann-Frisch household, largely stemming from Frisch’s sexual and professional jealousy, and Bachmann’s inability to work when Frisch is hammering away on the typewriter she nicknames his “Kalashnikov.” As anyone who has ever shared a desk in a crowded room can attest, there is nothing more guaranteed to staunch the creative flow than the industrious clatter of other writers writing.
Bachmann is far happier in Rome, where she is working on the libretto for an opera with dashing composer Hans-Werner Henze (Basil Eidenbenz). But when Frisch joins her, and is relegated to the role of his famous girlfriend’s plus-one, the end is nigh (though not, in this sluggishly paced 111-minute movie, quite nigh enough). Meanwhile in the future, Bachmann has a group-sex romp with Opel and a couple of hot young locals, and decides she likes the desert a lot. Perhaps the chronology is chopped up to conceal the simplistic storyline, which amounts to “woman goes on holiday after bad break-up and finds herself,” rendering “Ingeborg Bachmann” little more than a period “Eat Pray Love” with a comp lit degree.
What life there is here is largely due to Krieps, who does her best to evoke Bachmann’s intelligence and interior life, and who can deliver lines like “Sometimes I love my misery; it makes me a martyr,” with such soft sincerity they sound almost like something a person might actually say. But even there, with Krieps coming off the back of her fantastic, joltingly modern Sisi subversion “Corsage,” the classicism of von Trotta’s approach seems positively creaky by comparison. Sad to say, the film this one most closely recalls is Werner Herzog’s Gertrude Bell boondoggle “Queen of the Desert,” which similarly reduced a pioneering woman writer to a series of romantic liaisons. But at least that one had a fey Robert Pattinson in a headdress cradling a couple of lion cubs.
It’s not that Bachmann herself never let her relationships inform her writing. But she used those observations as a springboard into much more intellectually complex ideas about the politics of being a woman in society. She might have regarded anyone else mining her love life for drama as an unpardonable intrusion — indeed during an exchange between Bachmann and Frisch here, the one that precipitates their acrimonious split, she essentially states as much. A writer — certainly one of Bachmann’s high seriousness — longs to be memorialized for her writing, not for the salacious irrelevancies of who she went to bed with. But in many ways, “Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert” feels like the exact opposite of the project we ought to be attempting, which is to reclaim the work of women of genius who are in danger of falling into obscurity, without reducing their already threatened legacies to mere romantic biography.