Given an absorbing fascination thanks to its remote settings and a performance of hypnotic intensity by young German thesp Jeanette Hain, “The Journey to Kafiristan” reps an intellectual seam in Euro filmmaking at its best. Visually gorgeous, partly stylized pic about two women who set off into the wilds of Central Asia in the late ’30s is a tough theatrical sell beyond fests but is a classy sophomore feature by former documakers Fosco and Donatello Dubini, Swiss-born but German-based brothers.
Shot by Matthias Kaelin in precise, often breathtaking images that capture every mood of the deserts and historic sites of the region, script tells the true story of Zurich writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (Hain) and Geneva ethnologist Ella Maillart (Nina Petri), who drove from Switzerland to a remote valley in Afghanistan in 1939. For the hard-nosed Ella, the trip is a purely scientific expedition; for Annemarie, just out of a clinic for drug addiction, it’s an odyssey of self-exploration, testing her emotional and sexual limits.
Pic is divided into captioned sections as the women trundle along deserted roads in their small black car, through the Simplon Pass, crossing the Black Sea and driving through what was then Persia. Film oozes a quiet, detailed sense of its era: from Annemarie’s mannish clothes and the two “modern” women’s sense of adventure to the background of Nazism that was devouring Europe back home. Impeccable physical look recalls a past era of travel and exploration done in style, from a portable gramophone and precision equipment to clothing that puts today’s nylon and spandex to shame.
After a vague lesbian approach to Ella en route that’s politely rebuffed, Annemarie falls hopelessly for a dignitary’s daughter (Ozlen Soydan) in Tehran, deliberately pushing the envelope of social constraints of the time. As Annemarie becomes more and more distracted, a surprise awaits her and Ella as they approach their destination.
The heavily intellectual musings by Annemarie would normally have consigned pic to the trash heap of hardcore Euro art movies, but Hain’s totally convinced perf as the confused writer and the experienced Petri’s iron-calm playing of Ella make fine screen chemistry against the stunning settings. Pic was actually shot in Jordan (Wadi Rum) and Uzbekistan, with studio work in Hamburg, but retains the illusion of being set in inaccessible locations. Varied, ethnically flavored score strongly complements the visuals.