“Winter of Frozen Dreams” — a murder mystery film noir — hits unusually close to home. Based on a true story, which has since become a book, i?t is the tale of Barbara Hoffman, a highly intelligent biochemistry major at the University of Wisconsin who dropped out and pursued a career of prostitution tinged with intrigue and murder. After selling out in 20 minutes at the box office for last weekend’s Wisconsin Film Festival, “Winter of Frozen Dreams” will be featured at the Sundance Cinema beginning today.
Featuring a nonlinear temporal structure, the film begins with the murder trial of Harry Berge, a client at the massage parlor where Hoffman worked as a prostitute. The story unfolds as the viewer witnesses Hoffman and her fiance, Jerry Davies (Brendan Sexton III, “Welcome to the Dollhouse”), burying a body Hoffman allegedly found in her bathroom on a very cold Christmas morning. Detective Lulling (Keith Carradine, “Dexter”) leads an investigation as the tale becomes darker and more complex. Since being incarcerated, Hoffman has refused to give any interviews or go before a parole board.
“Even though it’s a true story, all that we really have to go on about Barbara is what’s in the book and whatever you can kinda conjure up to fill in the blank,” Thora Birch (“Ghost World”) told The Badger Herald. “She’s a true story, but since she’s been in jail, she’s been in total isolation. … Her silence, in some way, freed me up a great deal.”
In the film, Hoffman is not just a one-dimensional sociopath without any feeling. There are various scenes where Hoffman is portrayed as affectionate and even vulnerable.
“She’s not a serial killer for one thing. … It’s impossible to pick what was wrong with Barbara, except that she was so smart she was stupid,” Birch said.
Birch builds on this notion by describing her approach.
“I wanted to show somebody that was capable of feeling compassion in the moment but then reverted, in her own mind, to her overall plan. But we have to recognize — and only the book provides this information — that Barbara was on a lot of drugs.”
Gov. Jim Doyle, then-Dane County’s district attorney, prosecuted Hoffman in 1980 in what was the first televised trial in U.S. history. Birch discussed her relationship to Wisconsin and how she values the film’s presence in the state.
“I would have liked to have been able to be at the [Wisconsin Film Festival]. … I’ve always wanted to talk to the people from Wisconsin because I know a lot of the people there do remember this.”
Birch points out that though this was an independent film, it did not suffer for lack of talent.
“[I’d like to mention] how much I’ve liked working with the other actors. Everybody brought their A-game. They brought their best work to this, and I appreciate that because it’s not usually something actors would invest so much of their attention to,” Birch said.
Barbara Hoffman’s tale is deeply fascinating, and Thora Birch’s performance is one that sincerely evokes the complexity of such a paradoxical figure in Wisconsin history.
“Winter of Frozen Dreams” opens today at Sundance Cinemas.