People who Move to the City either Become Arrogant or Scoundrels

By Elke de Wit

south-of-pico-ernst-gossner.jpgSouth of Pico, 2008

The Festival of Austrian Films, The Diagonale, takes place annually in Graz. It was an opportunity to witness eleven recently made Austrian features running in competition. Austria is very much in the spotlight after securing the Oscar for best Foreign Film with The Counterfeiters. It looks like the current crop of films could well continue the trend for this country.

Revanche, Götz Spielmann won the first prize for best feature at the Diagonale and deservedly so. Revanche also screened at this year’s Berlinale in the Panorama section and was awarded the Art-Cinéma-Award. This film is a classic example of the fact that at the heart of every plot, no matter how simple or complex, there should be a strong, simple theme. Themes permeate our lives and if they can be highlighted on screen we may be able to experience the rare pleasure of some enlightenment if we can recognise ourselves.

Revanche achieves just that. It takes a simple subject, the wish for a better life, and asks how much we are prepared to risk for it and whether we are prepared to take the consequences. The main protagonist Alex (played by Johannes Krisch) risks everything to take a stab at a better life for himself and his girlfriend, but he loses more than he gains. The film follows his moral struggle of whether to take revenge or to count his blessings. Revanche is a rare example of a film where every twist in the plot is a surprise and you are left guessing right until the end whether Alex will choose revenge or forgiveness for both himself and his enemy. Alex is an archetypal hero who, metaphorically, makes a pact with the devil and then must redeem himself to be reborn a hero once again.

Notable also are the camerawork and the moody lighting design. Tamara, Alex’s prostitute girlfriend (played by Irina Potapenko), is forced to live in a small hostel room. When her boss comes to see her, Alex has to hide under the bed. The boss asks her to give him a blowjob. The camera shows Alex’s perspective under the bed. We see Tamara’s high-heeled shoes. There is a pause, then she first bends down on one knee, flicking her foot under the bed in resignation, followed by her second foot. The actions seem everyday and normal and we have to remind ourselves that we are watching what the boyfriend sees! When Martin Gschlacht (the cameraman also responsible for lighting) was asked about the shadowy lighting he simply said that it was important to set up and shoot with minimal fuss and the only way to achieve this was without much lighting.

revanche-gotz-spielmann.jpgRevanche, 2008

Götz Spielmann, who also scripted the film himself, has managed without many words to people his film with three-dimensional characters, both male and female, whether they are in lead roles or supporting roles. This is why the life we see in the brothel is as credible and mundane as the life we see in the countryside. Through the constant juxtaposition of rural versus urban, romance versus paid sex, police work versus brothel work, we are reminded that one thing cannot exist without the other and that life carries on wherever we are, whoever we are and regardless of what we have done. Alex’s interchanges with his grandfather are often full of humour and the old man observes much with few words. He points out (without judgement in his voice) to his neighbour as Alex walks away: “People who move to the city either become arrogant or scoundrels… he’s a scoundrel.”

The crystal clear sound design by Hans Ebner is enhanced in the countryside, where every frog and bird and gust of wind can be heard, as if to indicate that this is the place for recovery. As a result the wind itself takes on a metaphysical role in the healing of the hero Alex. Although set in Austria, this truly is a story with universal resonance.

Import Export by Ulrich Seidl depicts the lives of an Ukranian woman who decides to try her chances in Austria and an Austrian man (and his step father) who try their chances at earning some money in the Ukraine. They are two very different characters but in essence their struggle is the same. They try against all odds to make something of their lives. Paul (Paul Hofmann) is shown at a security guard training session in a gravel pit. The exercises look ridiculous and yet in a bizarre way they are reminiscent of the ballet. These scenes are juxtaposed with Olga (Ekateryna Rak) and several other women, learning how to handle floor polishers in adjacent cubicles which also seems choreographed.

import-export-ulrich-seidl.jpgImport/Export, 2007

The camera constantly follows the mundane and transforms it into something extraordinary to watch. Cleaners setting off with their carts, like a regiment, or Paul and his stepdad drive through the desolate and ravaged Ukrainian cityscape. Import Export is a film that lays bare the difficulties of surviving on the edge of the ‘New Europe’, without patronising the protagonists. We are left sympathising with Paul and Olga, rather than simply pitying them.

Three features that seemed more like exercises for either actors or directors at a film school were Die Tochter (Bernhard Kammel), Die Eiserne Grenze (Peter Wagner) and Krankheit der Jugend (Karl Bretschneider, Peter Brunner, Albert Meisl, Henning Backhaus, Henri Steinmetz, Tobias Dörr, Alex Trejo, Andrina Mracnikar, Stefan Brunner). The latter film is a verbatim reproduction of a 1926 play by Ferdinand Bruckner, divided into three acts, each act being directed by several directors. The film is a sepia colour and the sets are quite realistically 1920s, as is the original language, but this clashes with the modern dress. The plot revolves around decadent youth that could quite easily be contemporary, so one feels that a choice could have been made to either set the piece in the present or firmly in the past.

There are some good performances in it, notably from Henning Backhaus (also one of the directors) as the creepy lead, but finally this piece remains theatrical rather than cinematic and the actors (and directors) seem lost in a quagmire of sadomasochistic repression and aggression. A tiny kitten became part of a particularly harrowing scene, the actors having decided (or the directors – or both?) that it was a good idea to have it crawling along the floor among the screaming cast or becoming a part of a pass-the-kitten game that was excruciating to watch. Is there a possibility that had not Michael Haneke (the teacher at the Filmakademie Wien) suggested this project to his directorial students, then neither this play would have been chosen, nor this film screened for the public?

Die Tochter is written by the director Bernhard Kammel. A daughter comes home to her mother in a very small town and once again has to deal with the emotions of having been deserted by her father. A script booklet had been placed on every seat in the auditorium. On perusal, the text was lyrical and invited you to dream images and tap into emotions. The cinematography (camera, Volkmar Geiblinger) fulfilled this expectation. Long takes, with minimal cuts, gave the film a dream-like continuity enhanced by the strong shadows that black and white footage so often exaggerates. Worthy of mention also is the sound design, which was crisp and clear and underlined the poetic imagery. The plot follows the lead actor, an extraordinarily attractive woman in her mid 40s, (Sofia Tschernev), on her journey.

Tschernev is very aware of how to place herself to best advantage and the camera loves her, but this is simply not enough to do the complex script justice. She was quite obviously reading the script from a clipboard during a long monologue to her lover on the phone. This could be deduced from the way she carefully doodled around the edges of the A4 sheet of paper (on a clipboard) that she was reading from and from the fact that even then she tripped over words and tied herself in knots over the phraseology. At another point, during an atmospheric scene in the forest, she kept stopping and then looking to her right hand side and then speeding up again. Eventually it was possible to see the tell-tale piece of white paper (partially hidden by the tree trunk that she was sitting on), like a beacon amongst the leaves, which was helping her with her lines. Once this film has been subtitled some of these problems may be resolved.

Die Eiserne Grenze, was beset by different problems. The premise has the potential to be interesting; a No-Man’s land on the border between the old East and West, where two people, one from each side, meet. A battle ensues, ostensibly between the sexes, but it could also be seen as the battle between the two political systems. The enjoyment of the film is, however, constantly interrupted. The script lacks subtlety, there is an overuse of voiceover, switches between colour and sepia are often made for no reason and footage pertaining to be the same shot show an actor looking plain one second and wearing make-up and chewing gum the next second. The music too, seemed as if it should have been part of a horror film rather than a tale of two countries / people.

Darum (Harald Sicherlitz) has at its heart the premise that the best writing comes from describing that which you know. In this case the popular journalist Jan Haigerer (Kai Wisinger) decides that the only way to make his novel more realistic is to commit murder himself. He chooses someone at random to shoot and once he has done so gives himself up. At this point the film becomes ostensibly a court room drama with Jan finding it almost impossible to get himself convicted as no-one can believe him capable of such a thing. In essence it is an interesting proposition, but the characterisation of both Jan and those around him never becomes truly three-dimensional and the camera work is competent but lacking artistry. What remains is a good idea, adroitly executed but lacking the finesse to be a truly cinematic experience and more suitable for television.

free-rainer-hans-weingartner.jpgFree, 2007

Hans Weingartner’s latest feature, Free Rainer – Dein Fernseher lügt (literally translated – your TV is a liar) is his most recent anti-status quo venture. In his previous film The Edukators the bugbear was the bourgeoisie but in this film it’s the media, in particular television. Moritz Bleibtreu as the lead, plays a hard-nosed, coke-devouring, TV executive called Rainer. The opening sequence had people gripping their cinema seats with excitement and laughing with relief once it was over.

Rainer decides to use his know-how to buck the TV-ratings and the plot follows this process. It is interwoven with various society dropouts being engaged as co-conspirators and a (lame) love interest, which seemed quite superfluous. Although well executed and technically proficient (car chases and full-on coke-fuelled arguments abound), there are a few laboured plot devices. For example, Rainer has a car accident with a woman who has been following him. They both end up in hospital and he tries to discover why she has it in for him. When she is discharged she, conveniently, leaves behind a newspaper article clearly visible on the floor of her room. This article explains why she has a grudge against him.

On the whole though, Free Rainer – Dein Fernseher lügt is a thoroughly enjoyable romp with a feel-good factor that the man/woman in the street can fight the powers that be successfully.

south-of-pico-ernst-gossner-2.jpgSouth of Pico, 2008

South of Pico (Ernst Gossner) unfortunately did not run in competition because it was entirely financed in the United States and thus did not meet the festival criterion of being an Austrian production/co-production. However as the director is Austrian it was shown at the Diagonale and walked away with the Thomas Pluch Screenplay Award. In the States it did equally well by winning Best Director of a First Feature at the Pan African Film Festival, 2008 in L.A. South of Pico also won the three top prizes at the American Black Film Festival: Best Picture, the Grand Jury Prize for Best Actor and the Heineken Red Star Award.

It’s a feature with many well-deserved accolades. Skilled editing weaves together the different threads of this story. The script and excellent acting carefully imbue the characters with detail often missing from the films of more experienced directors. Everything works in this feature: the car drives and street scenes, the interactions in cafes and front gardens and on roadsides. By the time all the characters meet each other for the first time at what is to be the climax of the film the audience knows them all very well. This is the pre-requisite for achieving the truly shocking ending. It is an ending that makes you question yourself and the essence of humanity. It’s truly an excellent feature and a director to look out for.

All eleven films in competition may not have been world class, but certainly the selection at the Diagonale is an indicator that the Austrian Film industry has produced a few gems this year.

Elke de Wit is an actor and writer. She lives in London.