19–31 October 2007
Every festival has a reputation. A good reputation, or a bad reputation, however deserved it may be, either way. But only a few festivals have a real image. The Viennale is definitely one of them. More than anything this image is symbolised by the beautiful bags the festival gives to industry and press or sells to its fans. People actually feel like being recognised by the “edition” they carry around (or is it: they wear?). “I love 2005.” (The golden type). “Mine is old, black and shiny.” (Probably one of the first bags, with a high trade market value). The bags function as a memory trigger. You see them – you realise what year it was, which films you saw, etc. (And especially when you are somewhere else, during some boring or badly organised festival for example, you get nostalgic very easily.) The Viennale is intrinsically linked to the very special atmosphere it has once created and is still able to maintain. Good programming adds to this. A well balanced – broad yet manageable – range of films, genres, authors, epochs and special programs round it up.
What then will it bring back (in the future), this silvery, super glossy bag of 2007? What memories will it recall? It was a superb year (even if the kind of grandeur we are talking about has probably only little in common with the splendour of the mirror-like bag). Here are some reasons why: (i) The Filmarchiv Austria (Christian Dewald) and SYNEMA (Brigitte Mayr and Michael Omasta) put together a fantastic historical program with a national orientation, combining “Proletarian Cinema in Austria”, films by Frank Rossak and some of the rediscovered film critic’s Fritz Rosenfeld’s favourites; the show displayed an incredible amount of fascinating film documents and brought light into the world of those who keep searching for new cultural, political and cinematographic topics in old footage; (ii) The interesting retrospective by the Viennale and the Austrian Filmmuseum with its magic title “Der Weg der Termiten” (“The Way of the Termite. The Essay in Cinema 1909–2004”), idiosyncratically curated by Jean-Pierre Gorin; (iii) A handful of wonderful specials, including the appearance of an international celebrity (a tribute to Jane Fonda) and some yet-to-be-thoroughly (re-)discovered names, Nina Menkes, Pascale Ferran (oh wow!), Danny Williams and Stephanie Rothman (oh wow, wow!!); (iv) A fine 2007 best-of Rotterdam/Berlinale/Cannes/Toronto/Venice etc. selection of both feature and documentary film; and (v) Some new Austrian films, the presentation of which is not only a document of a wise, sensitive, creative and risky attitude but also a trace of the powerful negotiation and strategic “positioning” skills – the Viennale and its director Hans Hurch have become global players in Vienna’s and Austria’s cultural-political landscape, cooperating on various levels with other film institutions, trying to reassure or establish the very film culture, a country like Austria and a city like Vienna deserves. (Needless to say that every partner can easily turn into a kind of combatant here, if too many different intentions are involved; concerning the question of Austrian premieres, the Viennale, for example, is a very strong – actually much too strong and powerful – challenge for the Diagonale, the festival of Austrian film).
Apart from the huge credit the programming gives to unknown historical treasures and to independent filmmaking in general, what the program also reflects – and what has become yet another hallmark of the festival – is a pretty unique ability in cross-linking nearly all sections (by establishing special personal relations between them) and the current festival edition with recent ones. Take, for instance, Pascale Ferran: Her fantastic comeback after nearly a decade of silence, Lady Chatterley (2006), an adaptation of the second version of D.H. Lawrence’s erotic tale, was part of the main program, whereas the special program contextualised this masterpiece of (in the best and most affirmative sense) female poetic realism by bringing back to memory films we had seen before (her Camera d’Or-rewarded debut triptych Petits arrangements avec les morts [Coming to Terms with the Dead, 1994]), and others, we didn’t know of – like the 8-minute b&w essay in “kissing in film” Le baiser (The Kiss, 1990), or the very rarely screened documentary about the legendary music-session Four Days in Ocoee: Sam Rivers and Tony Hymas (2000), of which Ferran herself says that “without this attempt to take everything happening in front of the camera as it is, without the input of a will of one’s own, without control, just the way it happens, and still develop[ing] a sense for a penetrating view” she would never have been able to make Lady Chatterley. But the special also took into account Ferran’s works as a script writer for Mathieu Amalric’s Mange ta soupe (Eat your Soup, 1997) and Arnaud Desplechin’s La sentinelle (The Sentinel, 1992) – and the first step for linking films across the festival (and its own tradition) was done, since Desplechin, like so many other filmmakers from France, has always been acknowledged by the Viennale (Esther Kahn was shown in 2000, Léo – en jouant “Dans la compagnie des homes” in 2003 and Rois et reine in 2004), and Amalric is a much adored actor and widely known not only through Otar Iosseliani’s or Olivier Assayas’ films – many of which have been shown in earlier festival editions – but also through his appearance in Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s second feature film as director Actrices (2007), which was shown in the main section.
Other examples of establishing a network of correspondences and references could be found between the essay-film retrospective, the main program and the specials. The controversial quality of Tout va bien (Godard & Gorin, 1972), starring Jane Fonda in the role of an American reporter on her way to a political (i.e. communist) consciousness, was emphasised by the screening with its counterpart Letter to Jane: An Investigation about a Still (Godard & Gorin, 1972), a film which not only manages to still raise questions about documentary film as a certain mode of realism, but once had consolidated the irreconcilable differences between the Hollywood star, who gradually considered herself a victim of Godard’s directorial dictatorship, and holy Jean-Luc-and-Pierre, who analytically (and smart-alecky) accuse Fonda of maintaining her star image, even on her supposed passage to politicisation. It was therefore an interesting and courageous decision to also screen Haskell Wexler’s Introduction to the Enemy (1974), the Fonda-produced film about “Hanoi-Jane visiting North Vietnam for a second time”. Wexler openly discussed the ambivalences of Jane Fonda’s intellectual and political engagement in the Vietnam war issue in the Q&A and it turned out that Fonda got engaged rather by mere curiosity than due to ideological beliefs. So the profile in connection with the retrospective displayed all sides of Fonda’s versatile personality without simply harmonising this career – and enabled the “average” festivalgoer to still perceive her broad spectrum of genres and roles between Alan Pakula’s Klute (1972) and Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) as well as the ever so great looking lady of ever so indeterminable age herself (“Fonda in Vienna” … a real star … the Viennale was part of the high life all of a sudden).
In terms of correspondences and bonds, the Danny Williams special on the other hand seemed just a logical continuation of the 2005 retrospective, which was dedicated to Andy Warhol. If Williams’ experimental Warhol-Factory documents Harold Stevenson #1 and #2 (1965), Plaza 8: What the Underground Girls are Wearing Underneath (1966) and other shorts examined a certain East Coast atmosphere in the ‘60s, the early (and highly influential) exploitation movies by Stephanie Rothman – another slightly associable relation – exposed the discourses of women’s liberation, Black Panther movement, queer and lesbian issues, and the playing with genres, characteristic for the Californian 1970s. Rothman, like most other special guests, was present at the festival and during the extensive Q&As, and proved to be a reliable source of intellectual reflections on filmmaking in general, meta-genre cinema in particular and the collapse of its once independent roots and branches in addition (as for herself, she quit the filmmaking business in the late ‘70s). Her works were one of this festival’s extraordinary contributions to a film history beyond established boarders: it was not by chance that The Student Nurses (1970), the story of four nurses and their gradual deconstruction of gender and ethnical stereotypes (plus some wonderful stethoscopic expertise in male sexual organs and experiments with LSD), was one of the first big successes of Roger Corman’s company New World Pictures. Rothman’s next picture The Velvet Vampire (1971) is again another genre-and-voyeurism-testing etude, in which a lesbian or rather bisexual vampire by the name of Diane Le Fanu subverts the straight happily-ever-married narrative of the young attractive couple, seducing them into the desert of a luxurious villa, where all sorts of drug visions, hippie fantasies and pretty weird apocalyptic myths are being acted out. Whereas Group Marriage (1973), a cool film about poly-amorous human relations, shows a lot of naked flesh and depicts a queer eroticism beyond classically gendered representation orders, and Terminal Island, shot the same year and probably Stephanie Rothman’s best known film, executes a virtual law-subverting experiment – the abolition of the death penalty and the banishment of weird criminals onto an island – The Working Girls (1974), produced by Rothman’s own production company, Dimension Pictures, unites questions of labour with those of sexual pleasure and women’s lib. Due to Stephanie Rothman’s presence, her wonderful discreet way of seriously and openly, but never intimately, communicating with the audience, made this special program a real treasure, a little festival within the festival. It won’t be forgotten too soon.
From here a shortcut to some outstanding features of the main program is possible, since in Serge Bozon’s La France (2007) we might find a related way in addressing sex and gender. Camille – played by the superb Sylvie Testud – wants to find her husband in the midst of WW I and therefore disguises herself as a man, when she comes across a group of soldiers. Like the woman, the soldiers and their chief have their own secrets. What they exchange, however, is a rather specific image of a female and a male version of “the nation”, “La France”, at war. Their communication is expressed non-verbally for a long time, Bozon revealing himself as a young master in interweaving the discreet amorous feelings of worn out bodies with a landscape thoroughly pervaded by nature, beauty, traps and violence. But occasionally – and out of the sudden, just like in the perfect musical – they start singing. Hilarious songs they sing, with texts written by Bozon himself, in most cases. The soldiers’ choir from a women’s perspective, the woman from a male one. In all this – the setting in the woods, the matching of war time and love, the singing of the protagonists – La France is a devoted and yet utterly creative follower of Bozon’s much adored film by Boris Barnet, Slavnyj malyj / Novgorodtsy (A Good Lad / Men of Novgorod, 1943). Without the slightest intention to represent a document of the war, the film is a surreal, purely fictitious depiction of the inner and outer world of soldiers. The genre of the war film undergoes the same subversions as does the soldiers’ masculinity (and Camille’s femininity): virility is challenged by a multitude of heterogeneous role models, Bozon positions himself not only within the field, but also at the heights of Claire Denis’ eternal Beau travail (Good Work, 1999).
As usual, the Viennale displayed its close affinity to French cinema, risking quite a vociferous washout with the eagerly expected yet disappointing Capitaine Achab by Philippe Ramos, but succeeding with a wonderful selection of other new films (besides the already mentioned Actrices and Lady Chatterley and the festival touring 2007 hits by grand old Claude Chabrol, A Girl Cut in Two / La filles coupée en deux and Jacques Rivette, Don’t Touch the Axe / Ne touchez pas la hache): Jacques Nolot’s Avant que j’oublie (Before I Forget); Jean-Claude Rousseau’s De son appartement (To his Apartments) – flanked by a number of shorts by the same director; Pascal Bonitzer’s Je pense à vous (Made in Paris) – flanked by Rene Allio’s 1976 foucaultian study Moi, Pierre Riviere, ayant egorge ma mère, ma soeur et mon frère (I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother), to which Bonitzer had contributed as one of three script writers. But the two really outstanding oeuvres here were Nicolas Klotz’s La Question humaine (The Human Question aka Heartbeat Detector) and Emanuelle Cuau’s Tres bien, merci (Very Well, Thank You), both tremendously actual in terms of a neo-liberal world, which in these films doesn’t need spotlighting any more. It is there, just there, an inherent necessity of the system, nobody would dare to mistrust or challenge. Whereas in Klotz’s cold and hyper-technical analysis of capitalism (a non-pop Houellebecq-Beigbeder for intellectuals who don’t deny it), the creepy doubts arise within a psychologist (the great Mathieu Amalric again) who works in the human resource department of a big company and gets gradually manic because of the unavoidable traps his position exposes him to, Tres bien, merci, starring the magnificent couple Sandrine Kiberlain and Gilbert Melki,is the Kafkaesque story of an average guy who decides that he doesn’t want to be treated like shit any more by the official organs and institutions like the omnipresent and omnipotent police. Melki ends up in a psychiatric institution without any reason (needless to say that even if there were whatsoever objective reasons, the film would have critically discussed this sort of “reasoning” anyway), and because of the medical certificate he is rendered, loses his job. It is the way in which the seriousness of the “case” and its utter tragedy is dissolved into a subtle balance between grotesque and real that makes Cuau’s film a veritable masterpiece, a study of the post-9/11 subject completely deprived of any private and public or rather collective footing. Melki alias Alex watches his own downfall in simple astonishment and surprise, he is supported and loved by his wife, but the one gram resistance there was, when everything got started (the moment he didn’t walk away when a policeman told him to not stand and stare but to piss off), will always be stronger now than any knowledge or understanding of the necessary devices and techniques of every-day-surviving programs. A powerful document of unspectacular resistance, with a cynical tongue in cheek ending, the canny adaptation of an average, nowadays nearly “natural” device of status climbing: Alex just fakes his documents and gets a job as the head of a department.
Resistance and antagonism, yet of completely other dimensions, might also be seen as the major features of Barbet Schroeder’s hero Jacques Vergès. His monumental (de-)mobilisation (?) and impressive reconstruction of the incredible biography of the Terror’s Advocate was one of the big shots within the documentary section, growing and expanding from year to year at the Viennale. Besides the indubitable opera magna – Hartmut Bitomsky’s Staub (Dust), Nicolas Philibert’s Retour en Normandie (Return to Normandy), Volker Koepp’s 2007-double-hit Söhne (Sons) and Holunderblüte (Elderflower), James Benning’s Casting a Glance and, last but not least, Frederick Wiseman’s State Legislature – an extraordinary hand of hope in terms of political democracy (at a time, when – after Žižek & co. – really anybody would want to take its positive aspects and qualities into doubt) – this section, even if there were a couple of quite insignificant works too (let’s just not mention them then), really proved to be well researched. It was a wise move to widely do without the many Israeli productions documentary film festivals usually equip themselves with, but to focus on the magnificent (and outrageous) observation of illegal Palestinian workers in Malon 9 Kohavim (9 Star Hotel), the by far most realistic, ambitious, but highly unpretentious picture about everyday life and struggle in this, their state of continuous emergency. The screening of the Philippine enfant terrible filmmaker Khavn’s Iskwaterpangk (Squatterpunk), accompanied by the master himself (plus some other members of the metamorphic punk-rock group The Brockas), was one of the few truly anarchic moments of the festival, and together with Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s rebel-and-shaman allegory Huling balyan ng buhi: o ang sinalirap nga asoy nila (The Woven Stories of the Other) as well as with one of the most outstanding features of the last decade, Jeffrey Jeturian’s Kubrador (The Bet Collector), marked the broad spectrum of the strong presence of Philippine cinema on the European scene nowadays … completed in style and contrasted in time by one of the founding and father figures of theirs, also presented at the festival (the retrospective), Kidlat Tahimik: Next to Guy Debord’s In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (We Spin Around the Night Consumed by the Fire, 1978) his Mababangong bangungot (The Perfumed Nightmare, 1977) is one of the craziest contributions to the “genre” of the essay film, and in film history, probably, too). Radically amateur filmmaking meets American colonialism and later – via conversations with the Holy Mary – the customs authorities of Charles de Gaulle airport. A stony bridge (across which Tahimi, the self-proclaimed president of the Werner-von-Braun fan club who wants to become the Philippine’s first astronaut, pulls his carriage all over again) turns into the medium and the symbol of connection between his small world and the big world out there.
A similar network-picture can be drawn of the national film production represented at the festival, with a big father figure – not in terms of age and experience, but in terms of international recognition (Ulrich Seidl came out with yet another chef d’oeuvre of wacky European chauvinist realism, Import Export) – a handful of astonishing experimental shorts – outstanding here Astrid Ofner’s private investigation in inner life, the beauty of super-8 photography and Kafka’s traces around Vienna, Sag es mir Dienstag (Tell me on Tuesday) – and two pieces shown in the documentary section: Jörg Burger’s Gibellina – Il Terremoto and Peter Kern’s Nur kein Mitleid (No Pity, Please), sketching two radical poles of contemporary Austrian documentary filmmaking. The first is a strong visual encounter of the lifeless countryside of a Sicilian mountain village after an earthquake, the latter represents not only the probably second moment of higher anarchy during the festival but also a continuous attempt to maintain real independency in filmmaking: Kern is a daring and powerful explorer of real (brutal, bitter, sweet) life (and death) beyond the usual surfaces offered by average framings and habitual interrogation techniques. His provocative, sometimes vulgar, sometimes soft, always precise and emotional statements after screenings are as “direct” as his filmmaking always is itself. Next time we want to see Kern featuring in an essay-film retrospective, being the only authentic essayist in film (in Austria, I mean, this rich biotope for essayists and intellectuals and anti-intellectuals all the way through).
Coming to a conclusion within the documentary section, there were three films which need to be provided with a very special mentioning, since they might otherwise disappear too soon without the recognition they deserve. Christoph Hübner’s interview-portrait of Veit Harlan’s son Thomas Harlan – Wandersplitter (Thomas Harlan – Moving Shrapnel), Peter Hutton’s silent exploration of the world of ships, At Sea, and – a Number 1 in some ferronian top ten votings for Senses of Cinema – John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind. Harlan talks for several hours (in the presented version for around two), there is hardly anything else to see but his face, hardly anything else to hear but his voice, and nevertheless not for a single moment would one be distracted from his magic narration. What a life! What an intelligent, moving, political, engaged, potent, confident, and yet reflective, discreet, timid way of speaking. Speech as such is given back its original political meaning, the camera develops an agora of potentiality. Let’s hope that this documentary and the longer version, published on DVD parallel to the shorter festival versions, will encourage other venues to finally pay attention to this outstanding intellectual and creative world of the writer, thinker and filmmaker, Thomas Harlan. Peter Hutton might not need further introduction, he is one of the truly renowned avant-garde or experimental filmmakers and has always been especially dear to this festival. At Sea is a difficult piece, even if the quite and thoughtful atmosphere it creates helps to focus one’s attention and to spread one’s usually forgotten perceptive organs. In films like these, every other festival would probably get into trouble about the viewers’ attention – the Viennale, however, seems like the perfect place for these kind of experiments, crowds of people wanted to see At Sea, and they did – silently, astonished, and even awestruck. The most complex of all films then was John Gianvito’s masterwork Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, an amazingly well researched and tightly wound up contemplation on history and politics, the reconstruction of (in most cases unknown or blocked) sites and monuments of the history of American resistance, be it by civil-rights activists, be it by trade unionists, be it any other form of American leftism. For more than two years Gianvito travelled through the states, strolled on cemeteries, recorded memory plates, and visited places that today are more like landscapes of desertion than anything else. It is here that the strength of his cinematography and his feeling for shot length comes into account, with a camera focussing not only on clearly marked historical and political significants, but also on tree tops, blades of grass – buried traces of a hidden and lost history, and a new source for meditation.
As I said, let us keep quiet about the few examples of stupidity and ignorance, displayed in some festival films, features and documentaries; let us nobly overlook the fact that there is a continuous lack of Eastern European cinema; let us instead mention a few titles, which would deserve more attention than can be given them here anyway: two German shorts, Detektive oder die glücklosen Engel der inneren Sicherheit (Detectives or the Luckless Angels of Inner Security) by Andreas Goldstein and Nicolas Wackerbarth’s Halbe Stunden (Half Hours), for instance, visually clear-cut images of the former (Eastern) and today’s Germany, plus Robert Thalheim’s exceptional Auschwitz feature-length film Am Ende kommen Touristen (And Along Came a Tourist) as well as the rather enigmatic yet typical Rudolf Thome (Das Sichtbare und das Unsichtbare / The Visible and the Invisible); let’s focus on the Straub-connection, so dear to Vienna and the Viennale, with Straub/Huillet’s quite estranging Europa 2005, 27 Octobre, Peter Nestler’s documentary homage Verteidigung der Zeit (which might be translated The Defence of Time, probably), and, of course, a handful of older works by the couple, as part of the essay-film retrospective; let’s emphasise the fact that we had the chance to see the marvellous Dutch Wolfsbergen (Nanouk Leopold) and the wonderful Argentinean La Leon (Santiago Otheguy) again, and that with Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), and Qingmei Zhuma (Taipei Story, 1985) by Edward Yang, who died in 2007, three brilliant examples of a cinema of recent history could be remembered; let’s not forget that with his latest work Ai no yokan (The Rebirth) Kobayashi Masahiro has reached an absolute climax of his career; but let us, in order to finish off, finally turn straight to the most exclusive section of the Viennale 2007, a direct connection to which can be drawn from John Gianvito’s study in left wing politics: the special program “Proletarian Cinema in Austria”.
As has been mentioned above, this historical account of a local socialist film culture consisted of two, or rather three parts, the first part comprising eight programs of films and footage from Austrian as well as Soviet film archives, the second (a continuation of the first) consisting of three programs focussing on the outstanding film enthusiast, author, actor, director, producer and political chameleon of pre- and post-war Austrian cinema, Frank (Ward) Rossak, and the third part presenting seven programs of mainly feature films, the Jewish film-critic Fritz Rosenfeld has written about and promoted in Austria’s left wing newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung. We could see milestones of the cinema of the ‘30s here, like Pabst’s Kameradschaft / La tragédie de la mine (Comradeship / The Tragedy in the Mine, 1931) or Viktor Triva’s Niemandsland (No Man’s Land, 1931), we could discover the terrific and lyrical revolutionary poem by Ol’ga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov, Baby Ryazanskie (Women of Ryazan, 1927), and those who kept coming back again and again were rewarded with rare screen appearances like Hunger in Waldenburg (Hunger at Waldenburg, 1929) by Piel Jutzi, Charles Dekeukeleire’s Combat de Boxe / Boxkampf (Boxing Fight, 1927) or the phenomenal Luciano Emmer’s Goya / La festa di Sant’Isidoro (1951). The Frank Ward Rossak program was exceptional in the sense that his two outstanding feature length films, Das Notizbuch des Mr. Pim (Mr. Pim’s Trip to Europe, 1930), an election campaign and propaganda film for the Social Democrats, and the “first narration of Austria as a nation”, Sturmjahre / Der Leidensweg Österreichs (Turbulent Years / Austria’s Life of Suffering, 1947), were contextualised by the many short documents he shot in the early and mid 1920s about the “New Vienna” or the Viennese proletariat for the Social Democrats and – just a few years later – also numerous pro-NS newsreels. This passage from the strong early Socialist and Communist movements shortly after WWI towards a nation, which in the late ‘20s became right-wing authoritarian more and more (leading to the establishment of the so called “Austro-Fascism” in 1933 and the so called “Anschluss” in March 1938) was also the main issue of the extensive documentary and newsreel materials presented in the great first part of “Proletarian Cinema in Austria”. The exceptionally well-researched and profoundly presented as well as commented program (along with the program, the Filmarchiv Austria published two books and one DVD) (1) focussed on particular motives and topics of the time, like sport and body culture (including a police film on the International Workers’ Olympic Games in Vienna in 1931), May Day and other labour movement festivities – you can’t imagine how many of these parades you can see without getting tired, and you will always want more more more – or the construction and reconstruction of the “Red Vienna” (including wonderful architectural documents of one-kitchen houses, communal swimming baths, the opening of a huge stadium or just the “ordinary” community-subsidised municipal tenement buildings, interwar Vienna was famous for – with the very Socialist innovations, like bathrooms with tubs for workers, washing saloons, senior citizens’ meeting places, day-care etc.). Once you have seen these documents, you will never forget them, even if the material and the imagery seems ephemeral. The numerous May Day parades, the proclamation of the “First Republic” in 1918, the fire set on the palace of justice in 1927, mayor Karl Seitz’s speech of 1930, and all the footage of a vanished Austrian proletariat, their hopes, their enthusiasm – the Viennale days spent in the antique Metro-theatre were a major compensation for a lot of nasty political and social tendencies today, not only in Austrian politics.
Viennale website: http://www.viennale.at/