Vienna’s Forgotten Influence and New Austrian Film
Two unrelated events signaled a kind of poetic caesura in Austrian cinema at its second turn of the century: Austria’s first film star, Liane Haid, died in Switzerland at age 105, and Barbara Albert’s film, Nordrand/Northern Skirts (1999), emerged as the international festival sensation Austria had not experienced since the postwar era, fulfilling what Susan Ladika had suggested in The Hollywood Reporter in 1997 when she remarked that Austrian film “is ready to take on an international profile.”1 Haid’s death in 2000 at such an advanced age, served to remind Austrians and cineastes abroad that Austria had a long film tradition, that it was once at the forefront of European cinema, and that it lost its cultural connection with that past. Like the major silent film celebrity she had been, even in death Haid briefly refocused the nation’s attention away from politics and the economy, and onto the world of lost glamour and fantasy. For a country accustomed to grand tributes on the passing of opera stars, orchestra conductors, and theater actors, the reflections on Haid’s demise seemed almost apologetically fascinated with the subject, as if some treasure, negligently and long misplaced, had suddenly reappeared.
The death in 2002 of veteran Hollywood writer/director Billy Wilder(right, with Willi Forst) had a similar effect on the collective film memory of the nation. But Wilder — who was born in the Austro-Hungarian town of Sucha, found work in Berlin’s Weimar-era film industry, and was already a fixture in Hollywood early in his career — had been but a minor journalist in Vienna and never directed a film there. It was enough that this internationally known “film legend,” was Austrian. More importantly, however, he symbolized the forgotten Austrian diaspora in Hollywood. Wilder had been vocal about his problems with recent Austrian politics, but nevertheless accepted honors from the federal government (as well as from Germany and France) shortly before his death. And it was at his death that American film critics and journalists who hailed him as one of cinema’s greats, rediscovered on several tangential levels the once significant Austrian population in Hollywood. It seemed almost a backhanded tribute that Wilder’s obituaries in the English-language press would repeatedly mistake Vienna as his birthplace. But even prior to Wilder’s demise, Austrians, buoyed by the sudden fascination of Europe with its new film, decided that there was an important cinema history to be known and (re)presented, and that people would come to pay tribute to not only operatic and theatrical greats, but to film artists as well.2
Early twentieth-century Austria seeded the world with its film talent as it did with its influential modernism in science and the arts. Its multicultural cinema remains among the most accomplished and innovative in Europe, but among the least studied: progressive silent-era social dramas created by a female film pioneer, Louise Kolm-Fleck;3 monumental epics rivaling those of America’s D. W. Griffith produced by Austria’s first film mogul, Count Alexander “Sascha” Kolowrat, and directed by Austro-Hungarians Michael Curtiz and Alexander Korda; the early sound “Viennese Film” of Walter Reisch and Willi Forst, which blended musical romance and drama into a unique mix; influential postwar sociopolitical satire and experimentalism. It was German pressure on Austria to “aryanize” its industry or lose German distribution in the years prior to the Anschluss that necessitated Jewish and other “unacceptable” film artists to create an independent Emigrantenfilm, in co-production with Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Dutch, and even Scandinavian studios. These films, which were not for German import and starred such actors as Franziska Gaal, Hans Jaray, and Szöke Szakall, are now considered among the best comedies and musicals of the era.4
Austrian film has a stronger connection with Hollywood’s Golden Age than any other European cinema due to the sheer amount of expatriate or exiled Austrian film talent, which included among many others: Erich von Stroheim, Fritz Lang, Elisabeth Bergner, Hedy Lamarr, Paul Henreid, Fred Zinnemann, and Otto Preminger. While much has been written on the German/Austrian basis for film noir, the acclaimed Hollywood screwball comedy style has never been given its due as a comedy genre that is originally Austrian. This style would eventually come home again, expanded by Hollywood and thus newly inspirational to filmmakers during the Wien-Film studio era (1938-45), when the fast-talking, Viennese dialect-laden humor (and images of Biedermeier Austria) often subverted Nazi ideology, even censorship.5
With Austria gaining a reputation for lavish imperial epics and musicals (the Romy Schneider “Sissi” films being just one example) but no federal financial support or training for a new generation of filmmakers as other Western European cinemas enjoyed, the postwar boom ended and Austria’s commercial film disappeared by the mid-1960s. It was largely replaced by Actionist performance art and poverty-level experimentation but no “new wave” that would attract audiences or film scholars. It was this artificial suffocation of Austrian film that allowed for the erroneous and widespread notion that “there is no real film culture” in Austria.6 Largely forgotten by cineastes and audiences over the next two decades, Austrian film slowly attained sporadic critical praise during the mid-1980s, and since the 1990s, festival appearances have focused international attention on what is being called New Austrian Film. Work by Valie Export, Paulus Manker, Wolfgang Murnberger, Christian Berger, Wolfram Paulus, and Michael Haneke, would display mainstreamed avant-gardism that could coexist in cinemas with Austrian films that were more “traditional” or influenced by the television aesthetic.7 During the last decade, there has also been a re-vision of old genres, such as the social critique drama of the 1920s and ’30s and the Heimatfilm of the 1940s and ’50s.
It was the 2001 exhibition Alles Lei(n)wand: Franz Antel und der österreichische Film/Everything for the Screen: Franz Antel and Austrian Film,at the usually high-art venue of the Historical Museum of the City of Vienna, that indicated a new national attitude towards Austrian film history. Presentation of the veteran director/producer as a major contributor to Austrian and international cinema art (with continuous screenings of some of his more recent films) was a major volley against popular amnesia and critical discounting of the national cinema. Perhaps more than any other director, Antel represents the rise, fall, and rise experience of Austrian film since the postwar era. His lush imperial epics, musicals, and dramas of the 1950s are generally considered classics. His sexploitation comedies of the 1960s kept a fatally ill cinema alive at a time when there was no other national production to speak of, and his international co-productions of the 1970s and ’80s brought talent to Vienna, employing Austrian artists, technicians, and studio facilities in a manner even Hollywood had long abandoned. In addition to the many German-language actors he brought to stardom, he also helped launch the careers of directors Peter Sämann and Istvan Szabo. His Bockerer films have been an important part of the New Austrian Film trend that attempts to deal critically with the nation’s recent past — and in the commercial way that has always been central to the director’s style. At age ninety, as one of the oldest active filmmakers in the world, Antel directed the fourth installment of his Bockerer saga, Der neue Bockerer — Prager Frühling/The New Bockerer — Prague Spring, in early 2003. The film finds the Viennese butcher and curmudgeon (Karl Merkatz), who previously stood up against the Nazis, the postwar Soviet occupation, and the Communists in 1956 Hungary, now involved in the Czechoslovakian uprising of 1968. The introduction of a younger generation of Bockerer’s family belies the announcement that this would be the final installment in what has become a serial on the trauma of Central Europe in the mid- and late twentieth century.
Through its preservation activities, publications, and screenings, the Film Archive Austria has, in a few short years, elevated old Austrian films into something more valuable than the filler they had been on morning television. Complementing this work are the retrospectives and presentations of the Austrian Film Museum,8 which has managed to transform the screenings of even obscure film artists into newsworthy public events. A notable example is the retrospective based on the book Tribute to Sascha by Viennese film critic Michael Omasta, which recognized the pioneering work of Austrian-American cinematographer, editor, and film critic Sasha Hammid (aka Alexander Hackenschmied), who was instrumental in the development of IMAX. Hammid had begun his experimental cinema work in Prague in the 1930s and had assisted his wife, avant garde filmmaker Maya Deren, in the creation of her milestone experimental film, Meshes of the Afternoon (USA 1943). Following documentaries for the U.S. Office of War Information, his film projects with Francis Thompson for the United Nations led to the concepts that became the revolutionary IMAX system. Although praised for his progressive camera work by mainstream directors such as John Ford, William Wyler and Jean Renoir, cinema verité exponent D. A. Pennebaker, and veteran cameraman Douglas Slocombe, Hammid and his work have remained unexplored in American film scholarship. It is a rare triumph for Austrian cineastes to reclaim a pioneer of such stature.
With the European Union’s over reactive boycott of Austria in response to its elections of 1999 rapidly placed into the past, commentary about the “change” in Austria had taken on a completely different meaning by 2002: the new Museum Quarter in Vienna, consisting of a splendid restoration/conversion of the imperial stables by baroque architect Fischer von Erlach and several provocatively designed new buildings, was hailed as among the largest sites devoted to art exhibition in the world. In evaluating the innovative design of the new Austrian Cultural Forum building (above) in New York by Austrian-American architect Raimund Abraham, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Mushamp labeled it “A gift of Vienna that skips the Schlag.” Fascinated by the fact that something was “going on” here, Mushamp offered his own explanation: “since the end of the Cold War, it has become increasingly clear that Vienna, past and present, has a pivotal role to play in developing a new cosmopolitan outlook.”9 There is also veiled critique in the praise of Austria’s newly strengthened artistic presence in the U.S., as in the statement by Leon Botstein, Music Director of the American Symphony Orchestra, who finds discord between the country’s avant gardist, even cultural revolutionary interests and recent Austrian national politics: “A nation shouldn’t be confused with its government.”10 Laura Heon, curator of a show on new Viennese art at Mass MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in North Adams, Massachusetts, considers that “for the first time in 75 years, artists from Eastern Europe are coming to Vienna for art school. There is this flourishing scene now after 100 years of languishing.”11 Well meaning but exaggerated in terms of time, the commentary, like the many others that greeted Austria’s re-emergence in the American and global art and film scene, suggests a nation that has too long tolerated a lack of its own international promotion, particularly in the visual arts. It also suggests a slight shift in the concept of Austrian national identity. Never a homogeneous culture, but a melting pot that grew from an empire colonizing itself eastward (as the United States, its only true mirror, colonized itself westward), its reduction to a small country with a superpower history would be traumatic enough for any nation. But given its antagonistic relationship with the larger and more powerful Germany in the twentieth century, and the disconnection from its other ethnocultural roots in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, Austria embraced neutralist escapism and artificial sociocultural reinvention. The new Europe has allowed for the return of polyglotism, multiculturalism, and even controversial politics to Austria. This flux inspires and drives the Austrian visual arts, and no art form can bring the postmodern “crisis of reason” and Austrian cultural multivalence to the masses as film does.
A provocative documentary assessing the center-rightist government, which filmmakers for the most part opposed (primarily the Haider-associated but no longer led Freedom Party), and which has not financially supported New Austrian Film’s emergence launched the new century in Austrian film. Zur Lage/State of the Nation (2001, right) from Lotus-Film, a joint project by Barbara Albert, Michael Glawogger, Ulrich Seidl and Michael Sturminger, critically explores the prevailing political and social atmosphere under Austria’s neoconservative coalition government. Following experimental short films, the documentary form remains the mainstay of Austrian cinema. Originally, this was the easiest launch for a new filmmaker given the limited subsidies available. But even with the re-emergence of the Austrian feature film, the documentary has not shown any sign of abdicating its primacy. Since the 1990s, Austrian experimental film and documentary often cross into a hybrid that subverts the authority of the factual non-narrative film and mainstreams the abstract visions of edgy cinematic exploration. Borrowing from literary theory, this might be called New Historicist cinema, as it emphasizes personal history/mythology over preconceived or “official” concepts. Formal properties are far stronger than narrative structure here and the result is contemplative, even hypnotic. Reflecting Austria’s new interest in historical reexamination and its geopolitical shifts, found footage and random imagery deconstruct preconceived or static identities into a collage of reference-less filmic vocabulary that ruptures the idea of any central ideology other than its own immediate imprint. Seminal to this style are both Nicholas Geyrhalter’s nearly five-hour Elsewhere (1998), which offers interviews with people living in difficult environments across the world, and Michael Glawogger’s Megacities (1998), which in its “world spanning collection of slum and slaughterhouse images, functions as a Koyaanisqatsiof squalor.”12 Unlike the international shock documentary genre that began withMondo Cane (Italy 1962) and continues to focus on unrelated sequences of the unusually lurid, morbid, and grotesque, Glawogger’s film disturbs the viewer by simply framing the ugliness of everyday banality without an overriding ideological or moral point, as Ulrich Seidl does with his coolly detached feature on the wrenching dystopia of Viennese suburbia, Hundstage/Dog Days (2001). Seidl allowed the monologues of six Austrian Catholics sharing their thoughts and problems through prayer in Jesus, Du weißt/Jesus, You Know (2003) to stand on their own without commentary or closure, but it is Gustav Deutsch’s Film ist. 7-12/Film Is. 7-12 (2002below) that functions as a kind of manifesto for this hybrid, open-ended style:
Deutsch’s compilation of footage from cinema’s earliest decades sets decaying, hand tinted images of ancient modernity against droning, staticky electronic soundscapes by Christian Fennesz and Martin Siewert. The result is a hypnotic drift of relentless disjunctions: lions invade the sitting room of mauve decade aristocrats; a decapitated, haloed saint recovers her severed head; a black-coated apparition rises from a time-scratched sea.13
The title of the work suggests an excerpt from a multi-chaptered documentary on cinema, but the film questions the very idea of interpretive objectivity. Deutsch organizes the widely varied material into an Aristotelian dramatic structure so that the audience desire to connect even random images into a satisfying narrative is pre-achieved in all its obvious and repetitive artificiality. The result of this metafilmic experiment, influenced by the work of Peter Tscherkassky, the originator of the Austrian found film style, is the realization that film, film history, or even the film of history is but subjective fictionalization of fiction. The documentary can offer nothing more than multivalent images that have no authority beyond their application to personal mythology.
Emerging from an almost typical creative arc beginning with early Super 8 experimentation and study with 1960s avant garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka, to sound/color 16 mm short films and international attention is Thomas Draschan. HisEncounter in Space (2003), a seven-minute pastiche of brief excerpts from international kitsch films and television programs of the 1960s and ’70s, accomplishes a narrative that at once imitates and lampoons traditional cinema structures. Like Deutsch, Draschan sutures found cinematic conventions, but without the explicit suggestion of a pseudo-documentary. With snippets from Hollywood B-movies, Japanese and British science fiction, Disney cartoons, Austrian historical drama, and European sex films, Encounter underscores the ideologies of entertainment film and the expectations of the pop-culture audience. The effect is evocative of the kaleidoscopic color and vocabulary of Anglo-American psychedelic cinema of the mid to late 1960s, but the “narrative” suggests a postmodern sense of futility in the adventure/spy/psychodrama formulas it emulates.
Encouraged by international interest and critical acclaim, it is obvious that Austrian filmmakers are now aiming at wider popular reception, and are tailoring some films to capture the English-speaking audience. While this is not a detrimental development in principle, the highly diluted “Austrian” co-productions of the mid-1960s should also serve as a warning. Those films, made to appeal to the widest possible audience and the lowest common denominator of entertainment value, subsequently jettisoned any national style, quality, or subject and helped bring about the demise of the Austrian film industry during the decade. The most potentially marketable feature film of 2002 was an Austrian/German co-production from the most commercial Austrian company, Dor-Film. Stefan Ruzowitzky’s All the Queen’s Men, an English-language comedy-drama set in 1944 Berlin, relates the fictionalized story of four Allied soldiers disguised as women who attempt to steal the German Enigma coding machine. The film’s international cast alone should have moved the film beyond festivals and into wide release, but poor foreign distribution hampered by corporate fears surrounding the still untested reputation of Austrian commercial film killed off its potential. It may however join Ruzowitzky’s 1998 New Heimatfilm, Die Siebtelbauern/The One-Seventh Farmers (aka The Inheritors, an allegory of interwar Austrian sociopolitical strife played out between landowning farmers and farm workers) as one of the few Austrian films widely available to English-speaking viewers through video/DVD release.14
Michael Haneke’s work has stimulated international cinema discourse on a level not seen since the French New Wave or New German Cinema. His breakthrough as a filmmaker came with his very first feature, Der siebente Kontinent/The Seventh Continent (1989), which along with two later films, Benny’s Video (1992) and 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls/71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), form a trilogy on the social alienation and narcissism nurtured by the age of video and computers. His sparse, even cold directorial style serves to portray what he suggests is Austria’s “emotional glaciation.”15 Firmly couched in psychology and the social drama genre tradition, which he then deconstructs and subverts, Haneke’s revelation of the pain that lurks beneath the daily life of the bourgeoisie and the horrors it may spawn was shockingly evident with Kontinent, wherein the director, with the distance of icy logic, follows a family as it prepares and commits mass suicide — its journey to the “seventh continent.” Benny’s Video also takes on the isolation of contemporary life, this time through the mind-numbing effects of video games, which have become the obsession of the young son of a wealthy family. Having lost touch with reality, he plots and performs the murder of a young girl. Unlike the family-based disasters brought on by consumerism, 71 Fragmenteexamines the entire hierarchy of society. Haneke posits that the film is not populated by characters but by surface representations of the “fears, desires, and fantasies of the spectators,” and that he did not want to suggest “realism” but aimed towards creating a paradigmatic model. For Haneke, only the fragment can suggest reality, and his role as a director is seen as the provider of a simple construct by which the audience can interpret meaning and integrate the story into a value system. The film must not come to an artificial end but should continue into audience reception:
In short, a film as such does not exist, it comes to exist only in the minds of the spectators. A film’s essential feature, its criterion of quality, should be its ability to become the productive center of an interactive process…. I attempt to provide an alternative to the totalizing productions that are typical of the entertainment cinema of American provenance.16
Haneke’s theoretical influence beyond Bresson is clear: the fragmentary, subjective concept of Viennese Impressionism; the distancing effects of Brechtian theater; and finally, the rejection of the false totality of art that Walter Benjamin saw as a strong contribution to the aesthetic/political aim of fascism. Haneke also regards “beautiful” films to be a “banality” and a detriment to the precision of image, the result of the advertising aesthetic. Haneke claims that his films have less explicit violence than an average detective story, but it is the confrontation with self-deception that makes them seem more violent than other films.
It was Funny Games (right), Haneke’s 1997 film, that would prove his point. Although showing no explicit violence, this deconstruction of the traditional thriller in which a couple and their young son arrive at their vacation home and are subsequently met by two well-mannered but bored young men who slowly menace the family and ultimately kill them, offers no safety net for the audience. Unlike the resolution found in mainstream thrillers, no order is restored, no reason is plumbed, and the viewer is left to contemplate the relationship between the media and escalating social violence. Funny Games has been regarded as a film that spearheaded international film festival interest on Austrian cinema in the 1990s, especially after it became the first Austrian feature to be accepted in competition at Cannes since the 1960s. It was subsequently sold to more than thirty countries, an “unprecedented figure for an Austrian feature in recent times.”17
Haneke’s most widely seen films, however, demonstrate his postmodern trans-national hybridity as a German-born filmmaker in Austria who utilizes French casts. Code Inconnu/Code Unknown (1999) comments on a European collision of idealized unification and continuing exclusionary nationalisms. Die Klavierspielerin/The Piano Teacher (2000) is based on Elfriede Jelinek’s “chamber piece for three people”18 but focuses on Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut, a proper and demanding Viennese music professor who enjoys attention and respect while tolerating a cruel mother (Annie Girardot) and finding release through harrowing sexual abuse, voyeurism, and sadomasochistic sexual fantasies about punishment. When a charming student (Benoit Magimel) enters her life and attempts a relationship with her, she insists on controlling their sexual encounters to the point that it becomes an abusive power play. Ultimately she reveals her bondage desires and rejects his declaration of love. Frustrated and unable to find the nurturing, even tender sexual relationship he seeks with her, the student beats and abandons her. Intending to stab him with a knife during a public recital, she instead turns the weapon on herself and flees the concert hall into the night. The film is reassuringly raised into the realm of high culture for the audiences through the beauty of the piano performances, but this is abruptly smashed by Kohut’s incongruent and claustrophobically presented sadomasochism, for which there is no resolution or salvation. Haneke’s brisk cutting between moments of elegant recitals, troubled academic relationships, violent personal arguments, self-abuse, voyeurism, and sexual acts takes on a musical pattern of theme and variation on public persona and private truths, which finally collide and overlap. Although sex and sexuality are at the core of the film, it is unerotic and disturbing for its obvious joylessness and mechanical quality. Like the “violence” in his earlier films, which remained implicit, the sex scenes in Klavierspielerin are shot so that actions are obscured and the film has no nudity except during Erika’s genital self-mutilation and beating. While it is obvious that Jelinek’s character is her metaphor for what she deems are the sadomasochistic, if not fascistic impulses in alienated contemporary Austrian society — self-denial, sacrifice to high-art and culture, unbending social etiquette and role playing, resentment and self-abuse/punishment — the director denies that he has created any symbolism at all. Speaking before the audience at the Los Angeles premiere, Haneke insisted that he is fascinated with the “extremes” of human experience in society, and did not set out to create any political statements.19
Haneke’s follow-up to Klavierspielerinwas Wolfzeit/The Time of the Wolf (2003, right), a film noted for its unusually dark cinematography. It revisits the family-under-siege theme of his breakthrough Funny Games by way of Jean-Luc Godard’s apocalyptic 1967 classic Week-End, as a middle-class family flees an unspecified disaster to the illusion of safety in their country home. Another crisis-society film that symbolically responded to the upheaval in Austrian politics is Franz Novotny’s Yu (2002), based on material by Bernhard Seiters and written by Novotny and Michael Grimm. The film looks at three thirty-something friends whose joy ride to Trieste in a Porsche is transformed by the sudden violence of growing civil unrest. Also relating to the change in Austria’s image at home and abroad are the themes of ethnic and psychological self-realization, which pervade the films of several new feature director/writers. A standout among these is Mein Russland/My Russia (2002), the first feature film by short director and physician Barbara Gräftner. Basing the story on her brother’s marriage to a Ukranian, she presents a divorced middle-aged Viennese woman who resists her son’s marriage to a Russian girl. Gräftner’s tragicomedy arises from the clash of what she sees as pragmatic, even metaphysical Russians with prejudicial, goal-oriented Austrians. While she looks forward to “greeting old neighbors again,” in the Eastern expansion of the New Europe, she is pessimistic about Western economic imperialism and its destructive effects on “the Slavic soul.”20
Also dealing with Eastern Europe is Goran Rebic, who abandoned his rough-edged documentary style with Donau/Danube (2003), an elegiac fable that reconnects Vienna with the East. Rebic traces the final trip of a rusty Austrian freighter, its grizzled captain, and its vivid Ship of Fools-like collection of passengers down the great river to the Black Sea.
A parliamentary session on the future of Austrian film was called in July 2002, with noted producers, directors, critics, and actors presenting views regarding government financing and promotion of film. This was to be a major political advance for the industry, which despite the increase of its global importance faces a decrease of its already poverty-level financing at home. The center-right national government of the People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) coalition, which came to power in 1999 and collapsed due to the Freedom Party’s leadership strife, was returned to power after national elections in November 2002 and long-winded negotiations in early 2003. The previous coalition had cut state funding, particularly in the film sector, by 37 percent between 2000 and 2001.21 The government nonetheless referred to the session as the realization of their “responsibility” to the Austrian film industry in hopes of initiating a “new era” in Austrian film production.22 But just as Austrian State Secretary for Media Franz Morak praised the reemergence of Austrian film, funding was cut again. Federal support and promotion of film production had been late in coming (1980), and it continues at the lowest level in Europe. The Vienna municipal government has, however, attempted to provide support for various aspects of Austrian film since its short-lived city-run Stadthalle studio/production company of the early 1960s. In recent years, it has also been instrumental in expanding the possibilities of film education. In 2003 it granted the Filmschule Wien (Film School Vienna) 235,000 Euros to introduce innovative degree programs in lighting design, production coordination, and dubbing, all of which had been previously unavailable to students in Vienna. The regional film industry has also shown interest in the future of New Austrian Film, at least symbolically: Cine Culture Carinthia, the film promotion organization in the province of Carinthia, announced its “Young Movie Carinthia” initiative, which would earmark a modest 1 percent of its overall film promotion budget for limited productions by artists under the age of twenty-eight. For his part, State Secretary Morak announced the federal government would offer up to ten film scholarships per year (for a total of 95,000 Euros) beginning in 2003, to promote young filmmakers and provide “fresh impetus for the Austrian film industry.”23
One of the most controversial films shot in 2002 and continuing to resonate beyond 2003 is Haider lebt — 1. April 2021/Haider Lives — April 1, 2021 (right), which was privately financed and directed by Peter Kern. The satire attacks both Jörg Haider and the U.S. relationship with Iraq by reframing Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s notorious all-star 1952 futuristic satire on Allied occupation, 1. April 2000.24 Although quickly and cheaply produced, Kern’s film displays an imaginative iconoclasticism that has made it a modest cult hit. After twenty years of Haider’s rule, Austria has been placed on the roster of outlaw states, and has been invaded by U.S. troops. Johnny Bush, the fictional son of the former U.S. President, now controls occupied Austria, where all freedom of expression is banned, Viennese dialect is forbidden, and the dollar has replaced the Euro. A German television reporter (August Diehl) searches the enervated landscape to find the missing Haider and comes across several aging remnants of the Austrian political scene of 2002-03. In a sharp parody of Oskar Werner’s discovery of the “book people” in a world that forbids books in Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (GB 1966), Diehl finds such famous Austrian literati and film figures as Peter Turrini, Marlene Streeruwitz, and Helmut Berger, wandering through the Vienna Woods, reciting forbidden Austrian literature and keeping the dialect alive. In another cinematic intertext, this time suggesting Carol Reed’s The Third Man (GB 1949), Diehl arranges for Haider’s funeral, but the former politician reappears to foment a disastrous ending. The film’s depiction of the withering of individual freedoms and indigenous culture for an ideological “liberation” through foreign occupation comments on a national experience (the Anschluss and postwar occupation) Austrians have only rarely approached in cinema (Axel Corti’s bleak 1986Welcome in Vienna was one of the few exceptions). The ease with which it is now presented in the medium corresponds with the more recent national discourse on Austria’s role in Nazism and on its postwar occupation, but it also suggests New Austrian Film’s ability to reach a relatively large audience with controversial sociopolitical viewpoints. Kern’s film also encourages the renewed notion of private investment productions. The modes of American independent film production and shrinking government support have given rise to the very un-European idea of the self-produced, low-budget feature film across the continent. But the Austrians have been here before and made it work. Following the collapse of the Austrian commercial film industry in the 1960s, private funding was the only alternative for filmmakers up to1980 and the subsequent growth of Austria’s national television network, ORF, as a co-production partner. Christian Mehofer’s debut film, Die dritte Minute/The Third Minute (2003), will certainly test the viability of the return of this concept. Inspired by a Kurt Tucholsky poem, the film deals with two Hitler Youths who are trapped in a cellar with a hidden Jewish girl during the final days of the war. This complex character study about propaganda, independent thought, and basic human relations was rejected by several production companies that believed Mehofer’s name was “too small” for a story that would be so “expensive and large” to mount.25 Refusing to abandon the project, the director and his cinematographer Alexander Boboschewski raised a small budget of about 13,000 Euros and managed to hire a full production team with thirty-five actors, including one star performer, Fritz von Friedl, who was so taken by the enthusiasm for the production that accepted the role of the Nazi officer.
Ruth Mader’s feature debut, Struggle (2003), offers two colliding storylines scripted by Mader with Barbara Albert and Martin Leidenfrost: an impoverished Polish woman who has moved to Austria to build a better life for herself and her young daughter with factory and farm labor meets a wealthy, divorced Austrian who seeks diversion from his lonely life through sadomasochistic game playing. Abandoning a classical narrative form for the sake of an “anti-dramatic” exploration of the dehumanization and alienation of various work environments, the two intersecting stories also relate the clash of classes and geopolitical worlds: the woman represents the impoverished yet hopeful Eastern Europe; the man embodies a hollow consumerist and “emotionally bankrupted” West. Mader flatly dismisses the critics who compare her film style to Haneke, Seidl, or a mix of both. Unlike their male gaze, which is voyeuristic and often dialogue laden, Mader and other women in New Austrian Film such as Albert or Hausner utilize a more neutral, distant camera and leave much to the imagination. Mader believes that film plots are best served by silent images and visages, and through intelligent editing. Since much of what she desires to show cannot even be conveyed with words, dialogue is noticeably scarce in her work. Mader also rails against television, which in its expedient product orientation has “ruined” actors for the thoughtful, detailed work of motion pictures.26
The headlining of Austrian feature projects at international festivals, so unthinkable just a few years earlier, now generates wide anticipation. An example of this is Barbara Albert’s Böse Zellen/Free Radicals (2003), an Austrian/German/Swiss co-production, which received its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in October 2003. Albert’s film takes on the same illusions of control Gräftner rails against in Mein Russland, Mader dispels in Struggle, and Albert questions in Nordrand. As inNordrand, Albert again shows her virtuosity in working with an ensemble cast and in examining the topic of contemporary alienation. Five years after being the sole survivor of an airline disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Manu finds herself living in a small town in Austria. As the film hovers between the complex results of existentialism and a suggestion of incomprehensible fatalism, it becomes apparent that the individuals, who are part of the chance mosaic of relationships her survival and ultimate death have caused, must learn to appreciate life. A specific New Austrian Film style and feel, at least among female directors, is crystallized in Albert’s work for American critic Ed Halter: “quiet, cool, and subjective, [these films] achieve a detached, contemplative air so rarely attempted by overcompensating American cinema, communicating a bittersweet beauty through the simple evocation of interior life.”27 Michael Haneke’s Caché/Hidden (2005), however, has opened debate about the American reception of contemporary European filmmaking. His study of a Parisian couple unhinging in the paranoia caused by surveillance videos anonymously deposited at their front door was made in France with French actors, but the film, with its Austrian director/writer and crew, is regarded as Austrian even by the French. A critical and popular success across the continent, Caché found gold at Cannes and garnered the awards for Best European Film and Best European Director at the 2005 European Academy Awards, but it was rejected as Austria’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar of 2005 because it was shot in French. Perhaps the controversy surrounding this unpopular decision may have shown Hollywood that its outdated notion of foreign film and its own monolingual cinema is not the reality of the art anywhere else on the planet, and that in this postmodern world, the choice of a director to shoot a film in a language or a country other than that of the film’s origin is simple artistic choice — a demonstration of the power of cinema to transcend.
Vienna has “outpaced even Berlin in terms of cinema seats per capita,”28 due to the multiplex boom and the revitalization of abandoned theaters as art house or program cinemas. Despite the cuts in film funding, audiences now flock to festivals and retrospectives, inspiring innovations like St. Pölten’s Cinema Paradiso, which is not only aimed at presenting art-house screenings (complete with an additional bistro/screening room and a café), but can provide multimedia spaces for readings, cabaret, musical, and small theatrical performances. The Hollywood onslaught continues to captivate a large portion of the ticket buyers (if not the critics), as it does for most of Europe, but the success of New Austrian Film and the return of audiences to the cinema should not be measured by box office earnings, but by the enthusiasm and visibility greeting the art in national discourse. This was tested throughout 2003 and ignited by State Secretary Morak’s replacement of the Graz-based Diagonale Film Festival’s leadership with Miroljub Vuckovic, ex-program director of the Belgrade International Film Festival and Tillmann Fuchs, former head of Austria’s first private television network, ATV. The sudden shift of the festival’s mission from a showcase of Austrian film to a cash prize awarding platform encouraging television-linked films and South-Eastern European production was greeted with anger by most Austrian filmmakers who had not been consulted and who suspected that the restructuring was an attempt to silence demands for increased federal film funding. By shifting the Diagonale’s emphasis to television co-production, a new television film promotional fund could be utilized and the government might more distinctly monitor subsequent product. Morak claimed that a planned “media fund” to stimulate private film investment needed further discussion and that funding policies would be governed by Euro regulations. He ignored the petition to reinstate the former directors and pleaded with the industry to let Vuckovic and Fuchs get on with their work. But filmmakers in Austria and abroad considered this the worst example of the federal government’s disregard of the film industry. By autumn of 2003, opposition political parties demanded Morak’s team quit, and a “protest Diagonale” (based on the original event) had been formed by Ruth Beckermann, Ulrich Seidl, and Barbara Albert (above). With over two hundred films entered into the “protest ” festival, and with statements of solidarity arriving from other European film organizations and festivals, the host city Graz announced that it would not support the new Diagonale. Morak admitted defeat, the directors of his new festival resigned, and the original Diagonale was reinstated as the official event. This massing of filmmakers, actors, and technicians as a politically engaged and united front in the atmosphere of a rebirth of both the industry and popular film interest would have been considered unlikely, even a few years earlier. It provides the most impressive harbinger that Austria has indeed once again become a “film nation.”
It is clear that the new era in Austrian film has been in the making for some time, emerging from the impecunious experiments of the 1970s to current global interest, and developing through artistic and theoretical concerns rather than for commercial interests. Much of this journey is also based in the development of the Austrian nation during the past several decades, as its society wrestles with identity and geopolitical role. A significant factor however, for film as for national identity, is the new desire to look back to the traditions, innovations, and talents Austrian cinema has had, and has shared with the world.
- Quoted in Martin Schweighofer, “Introduction,” Austrian Films 1998 (Vienna: Austrian Film Commission, 1998): 6. [↩]
- The historical studies of Walter Fritz provided the only substantial volumes on Austrian film history from the 1960s into the 1990s. With the re-emergence of Austrian film, there has been a significant increase in published studies. Gertraud Steiner offered a government-published survey of Austrian film history in Film Book Austria (Vienna: Federal Press Office, 1997), and has also written an excellent study on the AustrianHeimatfilm:Die Heimat-Macher: Kino in Österreich 1946-1966(Wien: Verlag für Gesellschaftskritik, 1987). The Film Archive Austria has issued several well-produced film, director, era, and genre studies, often coupled with video releases of restored film documents, and more contemporary film has been examined in Gottfried Schlemmer, ed., Der neue Österreichische Film (Wien: Wespennest, 1996). Elisabeth Büttner and Christian Dewald have attempted to examine Austrian film history in a thematic/theoretical frame in their two-volume Anschluss an Morgen. Eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von 1945 bis zur Gegenwart (Salzburg: Residenz, 1997) and Das tägliche Brennen. Eine Geschichte des österreichischen Films von den Anfängen bis 1945 (Salzburg: Residenz, 2002). [↩]
- See my profile “Louise Kolm-Fleck” in the Great Directors Series section of Senses of Cinema for information on her life and work. [↩]
- See Armin Loacker and Martin Prucha, eds., Unerwünschtes Kino: Der deutschsprachige Emigrantenfilm 1934-1937 (Wien: Filmarchiv Austria, 2000). [↩]
- See my study, “Wien-Film, Karl Hartl, and Mozart: Aspects of the Failure of Nazi IdeologicalGleichschaltung in Austrian Film,” Modern Austrian Literature. Special Issue: Austria in Film 32.3-4 (1999): 177-88. [↩]
- Goswin Dörfler, “Austria,” International Film Guide 1977, ed. Peter Cowie (London: Tantivy Press, 1977): 80. [↩]
- Gottfried Schlemmer, “Das alte Vertreiben,” Der neue Österreichische Film, ed. Gottfried Schlemmer (Wien: Wespennest, 1996): 9-14. [↩]
- Film-friendly City Councilor for the Arts Andreas Mailath-Pokorny greeted the popularity of the museum’s retrospectives with a half-million Euro increase in funding from the city of Vienna. Michael Omasta, “Hinter verschlossenen Türen: Alexander Horwath Interview,” Falter 1 (2002) online. [↩]
- Herbert Muschamp, “Architecture Review: A Gift of Vienna That Skips the Schlag,” New York Times 19 Apr. 2002, online. [↩]
- Jennifer Senior, “Mostly Not Mozart,” New York Magazine 22 Apr. 2002, online. [↩]
- Carol Strickland, “Austria Makes Soaring Debut on the New York Arts Scene,” The Christian Science Monitor 19 Apr. 2002 online. [↩]
- Ed Halter, “Das Experiment,” The Village Voice 12-18 Nov. 2003, online. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- For an examination of the ideological shifts behind the filmic vocabulary of the rebornHeimatfilm, see my article, “Going Home Again? Ruzowitzky’s Die Siebtelbauern and the New Austrian Heimatfilm,” The Germanic Review. 78.2 Spring (2003): 133-47. [↩]
- Thomas Elsaesser and Michael Wedel, eds, The BFI Companion to German Cinema (London: BFI, 1999): 129. [↩]
- Michael Haneke, “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance: Notes to the Film,” After Postmodernism: Austrian Literature and Film in Transition, ed. Willy Riemer. (Riverside: Ariadne, 2000): 171-72. [↩]
- Beat Glur, “Austria,” Variety International Film Guide 1999, ed. Peter Cowie (London: Faber and Faber, 1999): 92. [↩]
- Matthias Greuling, “Die letzten Zuckungen des Tieres,” Interview mit Michael Haneke, Celluloid2 2002, online. [↩]
- Commentary from an audience discussion with Michael Haneke following the screening of Die Klavierspielerin (right) at the American Cinematheque/Egyptian Theater, Los Angeles, 23 Nov. 2001. [↩]
- “Mein Russland: Ein Filmdebut aus Österreich,”Celluloid 4 2002: 10-15. [↩]
- Roman Scheiber, “Austria,” Variety International Film Guide 2002, ed. Peter Cowie. (London: Variety, 2002): 85. [↩]
- See Brigitte Povysil, “Parlamentarische Enquete zur Zukunft des Österreichischen Films,” APA-OTS Press Service, 23 May 2002, online. [↩]
- “Promotion of the Austrian Film Industry,” News From Austria, Austrian Federal Press Service, 16 Dec. 2002, online. [↩]
- For various examinations of this sci-fi/fantasy film, which pleads for the return of Austrian sovereignty by projecting Austria’s revolt against an Allied occupation that has lasted into the year 2000, see Ernst Kieninger et al., eds, 1. April 2000, Edition Film und Text 2 (Wien: Filmarchiv Austria, 2000). [↩]
- Clemens Stampf, “Eine neue Hoffnung des österreichischen Films?” Celluloid 4 2003: 30. [↩]
- Matthias Greuling, “Der Existenzkampf wird härter: Ruth Mader” Celluloid 2 2003: 10-13. [↩]
- Halter. [↩]
- Roman Scheiber, “Austria,” Variety International Film Guide 2003, ed. Peter Cowie (London: Button, 2003): 108. [↩]