You don't want to argue with Franz Brenninger. The slightest annoyance sends him into fits of abuse, to the bewilderment of innocent bystanders, unsuspecting cashiers or the manager of the bank who decided to cut his credit. In the middle of the night, exhausted by his ranting and raving, he storms into the bedroom of his wife with a big bunch of flowers and apologises, after which he has to soothe his raging soul with Polish hard rock at volume level ten. Franz Brenninger (Josef Bierbichler) is in serious trouble.
Winter Journey (Winterreise), directed by Hans Steinbichler after a screenplay by Martin Rauhaus, is a daring enterprise. Who would have thought of mirroring Franz Schubert's song cycle about depression and loss in this story of the loud and foul mouthing owner of a near bankrupted hardware company? Bierbichler plays him as a restless man who seems to carry a heavy burden and is forced to speed forward to avoid falling down. Even his hookers — a remarkable gentle moment — are getting a little bit bored by his endless exposés about his misfortunes.
Confronted with his failures and the need to raise money for an operation to save the eyesight of his wife (a wonderful dreamy Hanna Schygulla) he rejects the sound advice of his children and instead ventures into a scheme offered by a Kenyan businessman. Realising he has been swindled he decides to travel to Africa in a desperate attempt to sort things out. He is accompanied by his young Kurdish translator played by Sibel Kekilli from Head-On (Gegen die Wand), apparently the only one who is able to sober him up by her quiet and sincere way of speaking her mind.
It is not easy to pinpoint exactly what determines the haunting quality of Steinbichler's second feature. Judging Winter Journey by the outline of the story one could easily get the impression of something rather contrived and unconvincing. For example, isn't this desperately needed operation one of the bigger sentimental clichés? And why would an experienced businessman like Brenninger fall for this obvious African fraud? It turns out that strict realism is not the main priority here — just as it isn't in the poems of Wilhelm Müller which Schubert put to music. This is the kind of inspired filmmaking where the final result exceeds the sum of the composing elements.
At first we are blown away by Bierbichler's unsettling performance which catches us off-guard. But just when you are going to suspect this might be an easy way to knock the audience down, we find that the most chilling moments are the ones in which the turmoil fades away, for example when we find Brenninger at a piano in a Nairobi hotel, singing with almost broken voice a song from the Schubert cycle.
The mood swings of the protagonist find their counterpart in the contrasts between the German snow mountain and the sun drenched in the African savannah. There is chaos in the streets of Nairobi and in the nerve-wracking hard rock beauty in Schubert's songs, in a mysterious African dream and in the visualisation of the song that compares the mania to the blinding light of three suns. Just as important are the choice of locations and the wonderful photography, at one time stressing the danger we already sense in the manic behaviour of the main character, at other moments evoking feelings in a truly poetic way. Unforgettable is the nightly image of Brenninger stopping his car in the far distance, a small cocoon of light in a cold and vast expanse of darkness.
All these elements and some more reinforce each other in a wonderful way, thus lifting the film far above the ordinary. Ordinary in this case would have meant a realistic study of a manic-depressive — a condition that explains Brenninger's reckless and irresponsible behaviour. Winter Journey however turns into a deeply felt human drama, the tone of which can be both hard hitting, tragically comic and deeply moving. Desperation runs through it as a central theme. We see a heroic struggle for salvation where in the end we are allowed to catch a glimpse of the love and true feelings hidden away in a tormented soul.
Even the cast is a gem, and not only for the acting itself. Bierbichler used to be one of Herbert Achternbusch's favourite actors; Schygulla was the Fassbinder-queen. By choosing them Steinbichler pays homage to the German new wave from the seventies while Kekilli is there to remind us of the new cinematographic élan of today. Winter Journey is another example of exiting filmmaking from Germany.