A Winter’s Journey
A WINTER’S JOURNEY is Alex Helfrecht’s feature film adaptation of Franz Schubert’s masterpiece, Winterreise, the classic song cycle.
Set in Bavaria in 1812, A WINTER’S JOURNEY follows an itinerant lovelorn poet who undertakes a hazardous walk across mountains, ice, and snow — a journey which will bring either death or a new life.
Painted by the animation artists behind the Oscar-nominated LOVING VINCENT, A WINTER’S JOURNEY is a romantic and epic tale which blends live action with CG and painted animation.
The cast includes John Malkovich, Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Others), Jason Isaacs, Marcin Czarnik (Son of Saul, Sunset), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes
of Grindelwald), and introduces newcomer Gabriella Moran.
The soundtrack is performed by baritone Andrè Schuen and pianist Daniel Heide and will released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2024.
A WINTER’S JOURNEY is an international co-production produced by Jörg Tittel at Oiffy
in London with Richard Mansell, along with Hugh Welchman through Poland-based BreakThru Films, Reinhard Brundig at Germany-based Pandora Film, Benoît Roland’s Wrong Men North in Belgium, and Alexis Perrin at Rumble Fish in France. Executive Producers are Sébastien Barrillier, Yann Duboux, Philip Munger and Raphael Berdugo.
A WINTER’S JOURNEY is proud to be a minority co-production with the UK through BFI Global Screen Fund support.
The film has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for multiple territories, with mk2 Films handling international sales.
Bavaria, the year is 1812.
In the middle of the night, a POET is surreptitiously bundled out of the front gates of a town that he briefly called home.
The wealthy mayor of the town, JAKOB, orders him to leave and never come back.
The POET screams out to a young woman, THERESE, to leave with him now as they had planned. Even though she loves the POET utterly, THERESE changes her mind when he becomes aggressive and sides with her pragmatic mother, MARIA.
We journey along a trail of blood over scattered possessions, revealing the POET splayed out in the bloody snow. He slowly
revives and pulls himself to his feet. He gazes beyond the town gates, at distant firelight, smoke curling from the chimneys. He can barely tear himself away, knowing THERESE is inside. He aches to belong, but he knows he must leave. The POET turns to the icy road ahead and walks towards the distant mountains. As he travels through the snow-covered forests and fields, he is consumed by his passion, desire and love for THERESE,
but is also outraged and shattered by her sudden change of heart. In parallel, we see THERESE forging a new life for herself without the POET, dogged yet racked with guilt. On his freezing journey towards the mountains, the POET looks back on the time that brought him and THERESE together:
The day he arrives a stranger in town and performs his poems for an unruly group of
soldiers in the Inn, THERESE and the POET fall deeply in love. Anything seems possible. The POET’s status as foreign and “heimatlos” (“nation-less”) does not bother THERESE’s liberal-minded army officer father WOLFGANG, nor her mother. Both parents imagine their daughter’s happiness with the soulful POET.
The POET is unlike anyone THERESE has
ever met. She is unable to curb her desire for him and they begin a passionate affair, only noticed by the vagrant LEIERMANN.
With news of WOLGANG’s untimely death on the battlefield, everything changes. MARIA, now a widow with no income, has to focus on survival. In their shared grief, mother and daughter must make hard practical choices. THERESE marries JAKOB.
While trying to leave his past behind, the POET must survive his treacherous journey. Led by his only companion, a CROW, he seeks comfort from his cold isolation in the magical beauty of the wintery landscape. Reminders of war in Europe block his path: dead soldiers buried in snow drifts and burnt- out ruins deprive him of shelter and compel him onwards.
Fantastical hallucinations of THERESE stretch his sanity and his heart to their limits. Desperate and alone, he is driven mad by her image that appears to him as a reflection in an ice hole and as a pregnant vision in an impossibly flower-filled snowy Alpine field. Even as he plummets to the depths of despair, the POET scales the heights of the Alps. Surrounded by the wonder, awe and majesty of the mountains, he comes to terms with
the loss of his all-consuming love, and finally understands his place in the world; as a wanderer, an outsider and an artist.
When I first attended a live concert of Franz Schubert's Winterreise in 2017, I was so entranced that I could not speak for a whole hour afterwards. The music took me entirely by surprise in its raw emotional power. I journeyed away from the town, across a wintery landscape that unfolded in stark, hallucinatory detail. I became one with
the inner monologue of the songs, the character of a passionate outsider who craved love and acceptance whilst struggling to be free from society. I pictured the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. His characters with their backs to us, gazing at faraway horizons, looking for something more and hoping to find a better world.
I decided to confront these big emotions in a timeless romantic story, and tackle its themes of alienation and self-isolation, which are more current and relevant in today’s politically divisive post-pandemic world. As a filmmaker I see the opportunity to take the audience on an escapist, musical, uniquely immersive cinematic experience. With this in mind, we are building the world for A WINTER’S JOURNEY using live action
(filmed in Summer 2022 at Ceta Studios, Wrocław with our fantastic cast) state of the art painted-animation techniques and VFX, all seamlessly combined to create a feeling of inhabiting a living, breathing Romanticist painting.
The Poet in the story is an archetypal Romantic wanderer-figure from a faraway place. It’s his outsider status that makes him
instantly relatable to a modern audience. His journey is part-survival epic and part-nervous breakdown and recovery. We are by his side throughout, experiencing the world as he does. Therese, the antagonist, played by newcomer Gabriella Moran, is an antiheroine who breaks the stereotypes of period drama: she seduces the Poet, invites him into her world and once he has let himself fall madly in love with her, she ruthlessly rejects him.
There is barely any dialogue in A WINTER’S JOURNEY. Our incredible cast tell the story without words. But this is not a silent film. Our characters are captured at pivotal, intense emotional moments in the story. Moments of love, loss, regret, desire, threat, where there would be no need for words, and where Schubert’s music provides a rich subtext. I believe the non-verbal nature of the film will make it resonate across international borders and cultures even more.
Just as the song cycle rests on the singer’s interpretation, the film’s backbone is the performance of the Poet, movingly played by Marcin Czarnik, who is on his own for half of the film’s scenes. Women have been expected to break emotionally on screen for years, and cry and be vulnerable at every opportunity, but the same demands are rarely made of male leads.
The film’s aspect ratio will fluctuate seamlessly between classical 4:3 framing for the story’s flashbacks, giving an intimate portrait feel - and widescreen 1:85:1 to capture the epic, sometimes jaw-dropping landscapes of the Poet’s journey. The 24 songs are filmed in meticulously choreographed continuous shots, working in harmony - and occasional juxtaposition - with the music.
Time, light and space can move differently — we can go from night to day and even change seasons and morph landscapes all in a single shot. All of this will create a painterly, fantastical atmosphere akin to lucid dreaming, the magic enhanced by rich 7.1. spatial surround sound. My goal is to create an audience experience unlike any other in cinemas, live venues and at home today.
Director, A WINTER’S JOURNEY