TIFF 2023: 'Woodland' filmmaker taps into her own experience witnessing the 2020 Vienna terrorist attack

"Marian's story and my story, they just found each other," writer-director Elisabeth Scharang said

Brigitte Hobmeier as 'Marian Malin' in WOODLAND directed by Elisabeth Scharang. (Photo by Ioan Gavriel)
Brigitte Hobmeier as 'Marian Malin' in WOODLAND directed by Elisabeth Scharang. (Photo by Ioan Gavriel)

Filmmaker Elisabeth Scharang combines the 2015 novel "Wald" by Doris Knecht with her personal experience of witnessing the 2020 terrorist attack in Vienna for the film Woodland, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Brigitte Hobmeier plays Marian Malin, a successful woman, living in the city of Vienna with her husband, until they end up in the centre of the city at the time of a terrorist attack. Trying to manage the trauma of what she saw, Marian flees to the countryside, specifically to the home she inherited from her grandmother.

While Marian spends her time roaming the woods and being in nature, she also reconnects with her friends Gerti (Gerti Drassl) and Franz (Johannes Krisch), who stayed in the village where they all grew up.

For writer-director Scharang, she was "immediately touched" by Knecht's novel, which led to to writing this adaptation for a movie, which she started in 2016.

"I think everyone, especially women, who are working freelancing, everyone has the same ... fear that your system is not working anymore and it's not because you did something wrong or you failed," Scharang told Yahoo Canada.

She also highlighted that "Wald" is an inner monologue, not necessarily set up to be easily adapted into a movie. That's where Scharang worked to craft this story and make it current, with the character of Gerti leading her through the process, after Scharang initially was not able to get "close" to her main character.

Moving to Nov. 2, 2020, Scharang witnessed the attack in Vienna, in which four people were killed and 23 were injured, and she started writing as a way to cope with what happened.

"The week after this we had another lockdown and we were walking through the woods because it was the only thing we could do, and [then] Marian's story and my story, they just found each other," she said. "I think it took a month or so, and I just did a rewrite of the script, and it was just very easy."

Brigitte Hobmeier and Gerti Drassl in Woodland (WegaFilm)
Brigitte Hobmeier and Gerti Drassl in Woodland (WegaFilm)

'I really wanted to create another kind of woman'

When Marian arrives back in her hometown, she's very much a disrupter. Marian's not particularly comfortable there and the people in the town aren't comfortable with her coming back, particularly the men she sees at a local pub. That's something that particularly appealed to Scharang.

"I'm really not a person who would ever say it's OK to hit someone else, but I really wanted to shoot the scene where you have this [fight]," Scharang said. "I just wanted to do this with a woman, and it's not that she's looking for it, it's just one too much."

"It opens up something inside of her. It started a process where she can start looking very, very deep in this fear and in this anger that her mother died when she was really quite young. ... Then she just left this place and coming back so many years later, and then you have this fight with this guy, it's inner explosion."

The friendship between Marian and Gerti is also something Scharang focused on in the film, more than the novel that inspired the movie, spending less time diving into the character of Franz.

"I felt much more interested in the friendship of the two women and I really took him out a little bit," she said. "Then again it's all about the man and they're talking about, 'yeah I was in love, I had sex, ... blah, blah, blah.'"

"It really disturbed me, but I didn't want to lose him. ... I think it was important that it's not the two of them, but the three of them. But it was good that he was not in the focus."

That approach also translated to how Scharang included Marian's husband in the story.

"I really wanted to create another kind of woman, another kind of relationship," Scharang said.

"I was very much thinking about, what kind of relationship does she have at home? What kind of partner is this letting her go?"

Brigitte Hobmeier in Woodland (Courtesy of WegaFilm)
Brigitte Hobmeier in Woodland (Courtesy of WegaFilm)

'When you're in the countryside, everything is what it is'

As you would likely expect from the description of the film, and the title, the countryside is an important component of the story.

As Marian is going through her own inner turmoil, Scharang includes beautiful images of trees and nature, playing with the expansiveness of this space while much of the story still feels very insular. We see Marian with more vibrant colours when she was living in the city and things were going well, while that vibrancy starts to fade as the focus is more on Marian's inner voice as she retreats to this old house.

Scharang also had to manage the very real weather, changing through the season, which no one can control.

"When you're in the countryside, everything is what it is," Scharang said. "This actually was the challenge."

"I'm also in documentary film and doing feature film, so for me, it's maybe easier than for other artists just to take what it is. So when we had a storm, I was happy about the storm, and when we had clouds I was happy about the clouds."

Woodland premiered Sept. 8 at TIFF, with another screening at the festival scheduled for Sept. 9