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Review: Was wir wollten (2020)

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

"Ich wusste nicht, dass ein Haus nur mit Kindern eine Daseinsberechtigung hat,” (“I didn’t know that only a home with children in it has a ‘raison d’être’”) says Elyas M’Barek candidly in perhaps the most tender scene of Was wir wollten ('What we wanted'), Austria’s entry for the Oscars this year, and a recent addition to Netflix. It sums up the core of the struggle endured by the film’s main characters, Viennese pair Niklas and Alice, as they navigate a string of IVF attempts and miscarriages which leave them searching for comfort in the radiant landscape of Sardinia.

Alongside Lavinia Wilson, M’Barek confidently portrays the quiet anguish overwhelming a couple struggling to conceive. “Wir haben auch ein schönes Leben verdient,” (“We also deserve a nice life”) he asserts, and though the beauty of the cinematography suggests such a life can be possible, it remains difficult to envisage by the end of the film.

Was wir wollten is the directorial debut of editor Ulrike Kofler. It is based on a short story by Peter Stamm, with a screenplay co-written by Kofler, Sandra Bohle and Marie Kreutzer. The bare bones of the film rest on a few cinematic cliches, namely as Alice and Niklas spend their holiday living next to a loud family of four who serve as a constant and unsubtle reminder of what they are trying to forget. The careful performances from both leads, however, adds a surprising and welcomed nuance.

At the centre of the film, of course, are the issues faced by Alice and Niklas surrounding infertility. Wilson’s acting is mostly austere and unforgiving, but her rigidness effortlessly betrays the hopelessness and resentment that Alice pushes away. M’Barek is also skilled in his portrayal of a deep-seated, seemingly ever-present bitterness that settles after trauma. Their relationship is pleasantly naturalistic, rocked by blinding desperation for a child that leaves Niklas hard to reach and Alice irritable and unsmiling. We catch glimpses of an organic, honest love, fitfully soaring and then once again crashing under the weight of a shared but inaccessible goal.

The presence of neighbouring couple Christl (Anna Unterberger) and Romed (Lukas Spisser), bringing with them their young children and a snapshot into jovial family life, is naturally a source of tension. Even reprimands about phone use and mealtimes are witnessed by Alice with a stony envy that makes the agony of her position ever more tangible.

The cinematography, led by Robert Oberrainer, is particularly clever in its presentation of distance, with Wilson and M’Barek often watching on from behind walls or windows. Such symbolism may not feel groundbreaking but it is definitely thoughtful, and it enhances the skill of the leads’ non-verbal performances: both in the muted space of their holiday apartment and the immaculate landscape of the Sardinian resort, Wilson and M’Barek radiate an undiluted desperation that is at once suffocating and far-reaching, bleeding across the emotional rift between them.

The film’s downfall, then, is perhaps what is said, rather than what is not: Kofler’s carefully crafted silences and symbolic shots are intruded upon by unceremonious dialogue that dampens the naturalism between Wilson and M’Barek. The script tails into hurried, blunt expositions as Alice and Niklas get friendlier with their neighbours. It is here that the theme of infertility is most clumsily handled, as Alice reveals, unprovoked, the most painful part of her history with Niklas, while Christl attempts to comfort the couple by mentioning that their first child, sombre and unspeaking teenager David, was simply an “accident”. What follows is a dramatic twist that feels like a shortcut into finally offering the main characters the perspective they crave - though perhaps the heavy-handedness of the screenplay is simply a neat way to usher the film along in its slick 90-minute running time.

At its best, Was wir wollten offers some gorgeous and carefully thought-out shots alongside accomplished performances from its leads. The subject matter could perhaps benefit from more careful handling in the second half, but Wilson and M’Barek succeed in carrying the film to a delicate conclusion. An added bonus is the interaction between the two families in terms of their views of Vienna; while it may not be the focus, it is compelling to hear Austrian dialect used and discussed, and of course, watching the film in its original German is brilliant for non-native speakers. It may not come out on top at the Oscars this year, but Was wir wollten is nonetheless worth a watch.

Watch the English trailer of Netflix's Was wir wollten (2020):

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