Misery loves company in “Snowland,” a starry, direly conventional melodrama by vet Teutonic helmer Hans W. Geissendorfer (1978 Oscar nominee “The Glass Cell”). Telling two tales of doomed love, pic is oppressively self-serious, with characters almost seeming to take pleasure in their suffering. Such a recipe has worked well in the past for the likes of “Masterpiece Theater” and Merchant-Ivory, suggesting “Snowland’s” canny blending of high production values, quality storytelling and drippy romanticism could prove catnip to middlebrow arthouse auds.
Amid the vast, unwelcoming hinterlands of present-day Sweden, author Elisabeth (Maria Schrader) learns her husband has died in an accident. Inconsolable, she sends her children off with a relative and sets out on what appears to be a suicide mission. But after crashing her car and stumbling through a blinding blizzard, she happens upon an isolated cabin, where she finds the recently deceased body of its occupant frozen solid in the snow. Persuaded by the cold and her curiosity, Elisabeth uses objects found inside the cabin to piece together the story of the dead woman, seen as a series of flashbacks.
Clunky and unnecessary framing device is par for a film that opts for obviousness over subtlety. As we venture back to 1937, pic tells the sordid account of Ina (Julia Jentsch) and her incestuous father, Knovel (Ulrich Muhe). Dashing, mysterious stranger Aron (“The Pianist”‘s Thomas Kretschmann), blows into the neighboring home of Helga (Ina Weisse) and Salomon (Oliver Stokowski) during a snowstorm, and soon becomes a kink in Knovel’s plans to keep Ina for himself. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Salomon, Helga’s heart burns for Aron.
Taking into account the pic’s tagline “Love is as strong as death,” “Snowland” charts, with glacial tedium, Aron’s gradual winning of Ina’s trust, Ina’s getting of the courage needed to stand up to Knovel and the revelation of Aron’s secret, troubled past — en route to the predictably tragic finale.
Back in the present, Elisabeth shows increasing awareness of the parallels between Ina’s life and her own.
“Snowland” substitutes nearly self-parodying bleakness for narrative originality and character complexity. Yet Jentsch, the luminous young German actress last seen in “The Edukators,” makes Ina’s journey of self-discovery more bearable than it might have been in other hands, while the excellent Muhe (a regular in Michael Haneke’s films) manages to lend shading to the otherwise one-dimensional Knovel.
The production has also been rendered on a grand scale by Geissendorfer, who shot the film on location in southern Lapland in sub-freezing temperatures, and there is a certain pleasure to be taken from lenser Hans-Gunther Bucking’s stark, formal widescreen compositions, in which harsh sunlight magnificently refracts off the wall-to-wall snow.