A highlight at the Rotterdam Film Festival, 'Das Herz ist ein dunkler Wald' ('The Heart is a dark Forest'), directed by Nicolette Krebitz, is a modern German retelling of 'Medea' that destroys the comfortable suburbian life of its protagonist with a surgical precision and some very sarcastic humor.
While the story is classic - a tale of a woman's revenge after her husband's betrayal - 'Das Herz' is anything but predictable. Krebitz uses the age-old story as a mold and fills it with increasingly surreal events, while interposing a number of 'Dogville'-type scenes between husband and wife on a bare theatre stage to fill in the background of their ruined relationship.
When Marie (Nina Hoss), a mother of two, accidentally finds out that her husband Thomas (Devid Striesow) leads a double life as a husband with another wife and other children, her world comes tumbling down. The scene where Marie steps into the house of this other family is like entering a parallel universe: the family scene she encounters - daddy at the table with his children - is identical to the one at her own home. Worse than 'mere' adultery, Marie's discovery puts her whole existence on loose screws (pardon the Dutch expression).
On her way back home, Marie collapses, and from there on, verging on the edge of insanity, she grows determined to confront her husband with his betrayal. Her growing anger is reflected in the film's great soundtrack, which sets out with breezy acoustic tunes by Berlin band The Whitest Boy Alive but changes into pounding electronic beats when Mary visits a costume party at a castle in the woods where Thomas is performing with his band. Here, in the middle of the forest, in a bizarre party atmosphere that reminds of 'Eyes Wide Shut', a lengthy confrontation unfolds. But while Marie finds temporary consolation with another man, such petty revenge is insufficient to cool her rage.
In the end, Marie is simply unable to accept that her whole former life, including her children, was based on deception. And like Medea 2500 years ago, only one course of action is left open to her. Her final desperate act lends the film a harsh, ink-black conclusion that may not be entirely necessary - for most people, the point will be quite clear by that time. On the other hand, there is a kind of uncompromising pride to Marie's character that makes her decision inevitable, even dignified in a very oldfashioned way.
In the post-screening Q&A on Saturday, at a packed Luxor, Krebitz commented on the symbol of the forest that is so deeply ingrained in the German spirit. "You have to find your way through the forest to reach a conclusion," she said. Leaving that conclusion out would be robbing Medea of her essence.