Dir: Hans Steinbichler.Ger. 2006. 95mins.
Diving into the depths of manic-depressive gloom withFranz Schubert's heartbreaking song cycle Winterreise as company is a toughassignment - while Hans Steinbichler's Winter Journey falls short, it does atleast rate some recognition for its courage.
Following a sixtysomething businessman driven to bankruptcy as he losescontrol over his life, Steinblicher draws a sterlingperformance from Josef Bierbichler in the lead role.Less successful however are the problems the director encounters in deliveringa credible perspective, as well as finding a satisfactory solution to wrap itall up. The intensity of the first part may provoke some interest, but sales willdepend very much on eventual awards and critical opinion, both of which areless than certain.
Franz Brenninger(Bierbichler) runs his own hardware company and has alavish house in the country but is too loud, foul-mouthed and rubs everyone upthe wrong way. The reason soon becomes evident: the bank has cut his line ofcredit, his customers have failed to pay up, his suppliers demand pre-payment,big business is crushing him, his ailing wife (Schygulla)is about to lose her eyesight; even his favourite hookers fail to satisfy himany more.
Logically, he should sell upand retire on what he has left, but there is nothing logical about his conduct.One moment he is a restless wreck, chain-smoking himselfinto an early grave; the next he sinks into dark abysses of despair.
A burly fighter who refusesto accept defeat, he rejects his children who entreat him to calm down, insteadholding on to the false offer from a Kenyan lawyer who offers $750,000 for theuse of his bank account. It is the type of scheme that clogs up email inboxesaround the world, but Brenninger goes for it, takingthe money destined for his wife's operation and squandering it on the obvious scam.
Nervous editing and darkchiaroscuro photography imply both the coldness of the world in which Brenninger lives and the darkness in which he finds himself,as the handheld camera obsessively sticks to him every step of the way. It all lendsthe first part of Winter Journey a tense, edgy atmosphere, allowing the audienceif not to sympathise then at least to penetrate the hero's disturbingcharacter.
Realising he has beenswindled, Brenninger then heads for Kenya with Leyla (Kekilli), his Englishinterpreter and a young woman of Kurdish origin, with little clue as to how tosort the mess out.
As he rudely browbeats hisway around Africa, antagonising everyone he meets, so the script graduallyloses its grip on the story. Just as it seems that all is lost, so the storyreceives an improbable nod in the right direction, pushing Brenningerand the plot towards a poetical but quite implausible ending.
Working from a script byMartin Rauhaus (who claims he was inspired by his ownfather's life), Steinbichler's brooding treatment drivesthe main character to distraction as he confronts financial, personal andphysical demise simultaneously. Josef Beirbichlerdelivers a powerful performance; less interesting is Hanna Schygulla,employing her usual gently sad smiles that are now an all too over-familiarpart of her screen work.
Sibel Kikelli, familiar to manyfrom Golden Bear winner Head-On, hasa far less demanding part, offering the lead character both a sympatheticshoulder and a young mind that warns him - not very effectively - of thepitfalls he faces.
But eventually cracks startto appear in the storyline. Brenninger claims some kindof intellectual background (three years in a conservatory to justify hisfamiliarity with Schubert's music) but then seems ignorant of basic cerebralmatters. His trust in the ridiculously transparent African ploy also makes himeither unhinged or innocent, although he does not appear to be either.
Once the action moves toAfrica, the film takes a different tone that demands less credibility; indeedthe best stand-alone moment is provided by Brenninger'ssurprisingly moving rendition of Schubert's Winterreise. Suicidal tendencies,suggested earlier on, come into their own with a final act ofredemption. It may make perfect poetical sense but plot-wise provesrather inconclusive.
Anna Schudt, Johann von Bulow