Even though Austrian cinema is basking in Michael Haneke's success, there is still pessimism in the industry. Herbert Krill reports from the country's showcase of national film.
Like all film festivals, the Diagonale (which took place this year from 18 to 24 March) has a specific "flavor," partly due to its location—Graz, Austria's second city, situated two hours south of Vienna and less than an hour from the Slovenian border. With just 250,000 inhabitants, it's not a big place, and therefore it's nicely suited for such an event. The festival does not get "lost" in the city, as the Tokyo Film Festival does, to give an extreme example. Also, Graz proudly positions itself as a city of modern culture. Since the 1960s, it has been the literary capital of Austria, and indeed in 2003 it will be the European Capital of Culture.
The rise of Austrian film
With the festival running for five years at Graz (after 15 years in places such as Salzburg and Wels and even smaller Austrian towns), it looks like the Diagonale has found its ideal location. And the festival, which principally showcases the national production, finds itself now in ideal times, too: modern Austrian cinema has never been so successful (in terms of international awards rather than box office figures) as during the last couple of years. The Austrian-French co-production La Pianiste (Die Klavierspielerin / The Piano Teacher, 2001) by already renowned Michael Haneke received three of the main awards in Cannes 2001: Best Actor, Best Actress, and Grand Prix of the Jury. Main protagonist Isabelle Huppert received the European Film Award for Best Actress, and Annie Girardot picked up the César for Best Supporting Actress.
Hundstage (Dog Days, 2001) by Ulrich Seidl was awarded the Grand Special Jury Prize in Venice 2001 and has since been invited (as of early 2002) to 38 other film festivals (winning some more prizes). Mein Russland (My Russia, 2002), the first film by Barbara Gräftner, walked off with the Max Ophüls Preis 2002 at the Saarbrücken film festival; and another Saarbrücken award went to Vollgas (Full Speed, 2002), Sabine Derflinger's debut. These are just the top awards for Austrian feature films; documentaries have also been very successful lately.
Despite success, mixed feelings
All the above-mentioned films were shown at this year's Diagonale (which hosted 130 screenings in total, shown on five screens over six days), and this should have been cause for celebration. But on the contrary, the mood at the festival was somewhat pessimistic. Partly, this had to do with a certain Austrian scepticism, a reluctance to believe in such a mundane thing as success. But partly it came from the undeniable fact that under the current right-of-center coalition government (which came to power in Austria at the beginning of 2000) film funding has been a decidedly lower priority than before. Since 1998 and 1999, when subsidies were relatively high, federal support of Austrian film has shrunk by more than 40 percent. That does not portend well for the future for many commentators. Stefan Grissemann in the influential Austrian daily Die Presse opined, "It's conceivable that the current success of Austrian films will be nothing than a Zwischenhoch [a meteorological term, meaning a high between two lows]."
Arguably, though, there is no reason to suppose that less money will mean lower quality. Aren't good films often made on a shoestring? Might it not be healthy for film-makers to be a little bit more exposed to the market, and less dependent on die öffentliche Hand (public handouts)? Isn't too much money an impediment sometimes? Mein Russland, filmed on a minuscule budget in twelve shooting days, compares favorably to most other feature films that were shown at the Diagonale this year.
But in Austria just like everywhere else, cinema by nature certainly is not a cheap medium, and money is and continues to be an obsession for many film-makers. When it was announced, at the award ceremony held in Dom im Berg—a cavernous space inside Castle Hill—that the main award of this year's Diagonale (EUR 18,140) would be given to director Fritz Lehner and producer Veit Heiduschka for their Jedermanns Fest (Everyman's Party, 1996-2002), some colleagues protested loudly.
The making of Jedermanns Fest was a drawn-out story played out not just in trade publications but in the Austrian popular press, too. The film was based on a Mysterienspiel (Mystery Play) by early 20th-century Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who in turn based it on medieval myths from the Austrian province of Carinthia, England, and the Netherlands. It's about a rich and successful man who at the moment of his death has to come to terms with his failings in life. Every summer, as a ritualistic part of the Salzburg Festival, Jedermann is being performed in front of the main Cathedral. Throughout the 1980s, the hero in most of these performances was played by Klaus Maria Brandauer.
Fritz Lehner transports this timeless story into today's Vienna. Jan Jedermann is a famous fashion designer, surrounded by beautiful women. However, he is successful only in Vienna but not in Paris, the center of the fashion universe. Only in death he will become know internationally.
Filming in and around Vienna, with Klaus Maria Brandauer and Juliette Gréco in the lead roles, started in the fall of 1996. After a few months, practically the whole production money was spent with the film only three-quarters completed. A rather public fight between producer and director ensued, culminating in a few days' of shooting in 1998 without the director. However, Fritz Lehner managed to regain control of the project, and in 1999 he could shoot again and was able to finish his film more or less according to his vision. Bringing Jedermanns Fest to a commercially viable length, however, took another couple of years—and many say that at 173 minutes it is far too long. In early 2002, the film was finally released theatrically in Austria; later this year, it will be shown in Germany. No one thinks it will recoup much of the money spent, least of all Veit Heiduschka, the main producer. It's all vaguely reminiscent of Heaven's Gate, the film by Michael Cimino that went over schedule and over budget, bombed at the box office and brought down a Hollywood studio.
However, the budget of Jedermanns Fest—not that much over EUR 5 million—was only slightly higher than that of the acclaimed La Pianiste. The director of the latter film, rising star Michael Haneke of long international standing especially in France (his two most recent films were filmed in French language), is perceived as a "modern" or "new" Austrian film-maker. Fritz Lehner, on the other hand, one of whose biggest successes was a TV mini-series and film about the composer Franz Schubert, is deeply immersed in Austria's past and culture, and seen as a traditionalist. More than the notoriety of wasted money it was the fact that several "avant-garde" films were passed over a somewhat "old-fashioned" film that was perceived as unjust.
But Jedermanns Fest is an interesting film. The Diagonale jury lauded "the excellent camerawork, dramaturgical density, inszenatorische Genauigkeit (accuracy in staging it) and the music and soundscape".
The films that should have won
(according to some)
La Pianiste, of course, received already many awards and perhaps was not a suitable candidate for a Diagonale prize. But Hundstage could have won. As with the films of the more famous Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl's films show the dark and depressing side not just of Austrian, but rather the Western way of life. The story takes place just south of Vienna, in an area of shopping malls and hypermarkets, freeways and pre-fabricated homes. In this universe, there is little love, and only some humor; in stead, there is plenty of cruelty and violence, apathy and loneliness. Hundstage is billed as Ulrich Seidl's first feature film; but already his previous documentary works, such as Tierische Liebe (Animalistic Love, 1995) and Models (1999), blurred the line between fact and fiction.
This seems to become a specialty of Austrian film-making: to observe Austrian / Western society minutely and to create hyperrealist worlds where its members are put on the screen without pity (a cinematic parallel, perhaps, to the paintings of an Edward Hopper or an Eric Fischl).
Although technically far inferior to the above-mentioned films, Mein Russland also might have been worthy of the Grand Prize. It is an Altmanesque tragi-comedy about a middle-aged Austrian woman whose son wants to marry a Russian. When the Russian in-laws arrive, mutual culture shock sets in, things quickly become interesting and much is learned by both sides. Mein Russland was filmed in continuous takes of up to twenty minutes, which were repeated a maximum of three times. This was filmed with one or sometimes two wildly moving cameras, Dogma-like. Only half the roles were played by professional actors.
Lacking the ability to be in more than one place at a time, I didn't get to see two films that were certainly important. The first was Vollgas (which received the Förderpreis of the Jury in Saarbrücken, Germany). The film portrays a young woman full of hunger for life. She is a seasonal worker in one of Austria's many ski resorts. She works hard, makes good money, but falls prey to the dictate of the Spaßgesellschaft (literally, "fun society"). She parties just as much as the paying guests do, gets drunk, takes drugs and has promiscuous sex with them. Besides being personal drama, Vollgas shows the dark underside of a whole society based on tourism. As director Sabine Derflinger has stated, "It's a Heimatfilm ["Homeland" film] of a different sort."
The other significant film I missed was nogo (2002), whose production company Dor Film received a Diagonale prize of EUR 10,000 for innovative achievement. Three episodes tell the story of three couples, all taking place at the same gas station. Sabine Hiebler and Gerhard Ertl, a couple working together for over ten years, have been known for their experimental films, so this film is full of cool gestylte Bilder ("cool, stylized images").
Nazis, past and present
I made a point, however, of seeing Gebürtig (2002), it being the opening gala of this year's Diagonale at the splendid Opera House. The directors Lukas Stepanik and Robert Schindel (the latter was born of Jewish parents and also wrote the 1992 novel of the same title, which became a bestseller in Austria) were present, as well as the main actors, among them the well-cast Peter Simonischek in the title role. Hermann Gebirtig (a word play—both the Yiddish gebirtig and the German gebürtig mean "coming from"), a Jew from Vienna, has managed to escape the Reich and has settled in New York, becoming a successful composer of musicals. There, he harbors ill feelings towards Vienna and the Austrian people and never ever wants to go back. But eventually, he is talked into going there—and to his surprise, falls in love with Vienna again—at least temporarily.
The story takes place during the "Waldheim Years", in the 1980s, when the former UN Secretary General became President of Austria. It is about the sons of the victims, but also about those of the perpetrators—among them a journalist, played by Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski (his voice dubbed), whose father was hanged at Nuremberg. Unfortunately, Gebürtig takes too long to reach the moment when it finally becomes really interesting. Only its last third, when Gebirtig arrives in Vienna, is truly moving. But it is another well-made and well-meant example of Austrian film-makers dealing with Austria's guilt and involvement in the Nazi past, and should be seen.
At the Diagonale there were several other films dealing with the Nazi past. Among them Im toten Winkel. Hitlers Sekretärin (In the Eye of the Hurricane: Hitler's Secretary, 2002) by André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, which won the Audience Award of the Panorama section of this year's Berlinale. In her early twenties, during the last few years of the War, Traudl Junge became a secretary of Adolf Hitler. As an old woman (she actually died the day after the Berlin premiere) she came to regret this more and more.
Egon Humer's new documentary, Amos Vogel—Mosaik im Vertrauen (Amos Vogel—Mosaic in Confidence, 2001) won Diagonale's prize for Best Documentary. It's a solid but somewhat experimental film, with some unexpected and deliberately irritating shifts and repetitions. It portrays Austrian Jewish emigré Amos Vogel, film expert ("Film As a Subversive Art") and co-founder of the New York Film Festival, and documents his feelings to the country that forced him into exile.
After the fall
It took the Serb film-maker Želimir Žilnik to point out that there is also a connection between the most recent past and the Nazi atrocities. In a panel discussion titled "Image Transfer: South-East European Film(net)works" he stated, "Now we are in post-Balkan-Fascist times. Fascism in the Balkans collapsed and failed. But Fascism is a European subject. It was not born in Bosnia. Our colleagues from the West are free to question our, but also their history."
This panel discussion, where one could learn about new attempts by the countries of southeastern Europe to cooperate with each other, was held because of the Diagonale's tradition, since moving to Graz, to include the region just south of the Austrian border. Furthermore, Austrian film-makers have made interesting documentaries and even feature films dealing with the disintegration of Yugoslavia for years, like Barbara Albert with Somewhere Else (1997), Nikolaus Geyrhalter with Das Jahr nach Dayton (The Year After Dayton, 1997), Nina Kusturica with Draga Ljiljana (Dear Ljiljana, 2000) or Goran Rebiæ with Jugofilm (Yugofilm, 1997) and The Punishment (1999), all of which have been shown at the Diagonale in recent years.
This year, one of the most interesting films dealing with the subject wasTirana, Year Zero (2001), the second feature by Albanian Fatmir Koçi, shown at Graz because it was partly funded by Austrian subsidies and in Heinzi Brandner had an Austrian co-writer and cameraman. In the guise of a tragi-comedy set in 1997, Tirana, Year Zero is Koçi's plea to his compatriots not to abandon Albania at the country's most difficult moment.
Equally impressive was the sad and moving documentary by Dutch director Heddy Honigmann (who was the subject of a retrospective), Goede man, lieve zoon (Good Husband, Dear Son, 2001). The film records reminiscences of the wives and mothers of men killed in the Bosnian war.
A short documentary by Barbara Kaiser, Experiment on a Map (2001), demonstrated how many Austrians are not able to clearly identify all the new republics and provinces that came out of the break-up of the old Yugoslavia. It's an entertaining piece, funny in its simplicity, showing just hands, trying and hesitating to attach the proper names to the map. One imagines that hands and minds of other nations, farther away from the region than neighbor Austria, would do even worse.
The political changes inherent in the collapse of Communism and between East and West, were showcased in the section "Im Bewußtsein des Untergangs" ("In Awareness of the Fall"), one of two compilations of short films shown during the last thirty years at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival (which had a tribute at Graz). Included were shorts by Želimir Žilnik, Zbigniew Rybczynski, Jan Švankmajer and others, all commenting on (and some predicting) the changes to the European political sphere.
These changes were metaphorically brought to the screen in the documentary Auf allen Meeren (At All Seas, 2001) by Johannes Holzhausen. Here, the Kiev, biggest aircraft carrier of the Soviet Empire, becomes a symbol for its collapse. Too expensive too maintain, slowly rusting away, it finally gets decommissioned and sold to Chinese entrepreneurs to become the main attraction of a theme park near Beijing.
Austrian film-makers at all seas
The title At All Seas could be applied to Austrian film-makers as well who, like the general population of the (rather prosperous) country, are big travelers. I missed Boxwallahs (2002), a 45-minute documentary by DeEgo ("a Viennese art and theory network"), which shows the impact of globalization on New Delhi, but I managed to make it to Sneaking in: Donald Richie's Life in Film (2002) by PRINZGAU/podgorschek and documents the work and the impact of this mediator between Japanese and Western culture.
Another documentary dealt with the American avant-garde film-maker Maya Deren, but this time, there is at least an indirect connection to Austria. A Jewish immigrant from Kiev (originally named Eleanora Derenkovsky), Deren for several years was married to and worked with Sasha Hammid, who himself was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, and who was born in Linz, Austria (as Alexander Hackenschmied).
In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2001) by Martina Kudláèek, filmed in 35mm, is a very professional, deeply researched, and aesthetically pleasing documentary. It manages well to tell the life of the famous artist, and shows plenty of clips from her films, including her masterpiece, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). There are enough interview statements from friends and colleagues (some of them now in their nineties) to make In the Mirror of Maya Deren the definitive film about the subject for some time to come.
At the Diagonale, Kudláèek also showed her 1997 documentary on Deren's husband, Aimless Walk—Alexander Hammid. She learned about him while studying and working in Prague, and visited and filmed him later in New York, where he still lives, now aged 95. He had a long career as a film-maker and cameraman, in Czechoslovakia as well as the United States, being involved in all kinds of cinema, from experimental films (with and without Maya Deren), to political and propaganda films, to "Expanded Cinema" and the IMAX format. The Diagonale honored the half-forgotten film-maker with a "Tribute to Sasha", showing a cross-section of his films.
But there was a film shown at the festival that went even beyond America and Asia and tried to be truly global. Elsewhere (2001), a four-hour tour de force (with intermission) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, whose last documentary was Pripyat (1999) about the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster. The concept of Elsewhere is as radical as it is simple: during each month of the year 2000, some far-away place of our planet was filmed. And by far-away, Geyrhalter really meant it: he went to Greenland, Papua New Guinea, the Sahara and similarly remote places.
In these mini-stories, we see just a small group of people, some families or sometimes just one person, and experience what for them are the mundane details of their everyday lives. Elsewhere makes us travel back in time, to how we all used to live, close to earth, water, fire, and air. In its camerawork and editing, Geyrhalter's film keeps enough distance so that we have a chance to experience for ourselves, without interference from the film-maker. The only thing he does is picking us up every twenty minutes and setting us down elsewhere.
The ones that got away
The more I look at the Diagonale catalog, read articles about the festival and talk with people who also attended, the more I regret that I didn't see more. For example, I missed completely the retrospective devoted to Gustav Deutsch, a theoretician of film and practicing film-maker who works mostly with found footage. His work in progress Film ist.
, 1998-) shows pieces of silent film from the first thirty years of cinema. Chapters like "Movement and Time," "Light and Darkness," "Material," "A Moment," "A Mirror," "Funny," "Magic," etc give a phenomenology of film as a medium.
Always, one would have liked to see all the films that turned out to be prize winners. Like Sea Concrete Human—Malfunctions #1 (2001) by Michael Palm (also a film theoretician, as well as film composer and editor), a 29-minute science fiction piece, which was awarded the Prize for Innovative Cinema.
Among other films of interest were: A lucia (2001), a 10-minute short by Julia Lazarus and Ben Pointeker, which received a prize from ORF Austrian TV; the experimental feature Richtung Zukunft durch die Nacht (Direction to the Future Through the Night, 2002), a 60-minute feature by Jörg Kalt, which goes backwards from about the middle of the film; and K.aF.ka fragment (2001) by Christian Frosch, based on Franz Kafka's letters to Felice Bauer, his two-time fiancée.
There were many more films, especially shorts, videos and digital films, a tribute to the Résistances Film Festival in France, a three-part program titled "noborder—nonation", more panel discussions and every night music till 4am in the Dom im Berg. At the final press conference, the directors of the Diagonale, Christine Dollhofer and Constantin Wulff, declared the festival a success—and rightfully so. There was a rise in attendance of 27 percent compared to last year. Officially, there were 24,870 attendences to all the screenings—of which I was a mere 21 of them.
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