Is there an Austrian National Cinema?

The concept of national cinema has always been difficult to pin down. Especially in a country whose domestic market is as small and whose identity has been as fluid as Austria’s. Consider the 82nd Academy Awards Ceremony. Sitting in the audience at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles on the evening of 7 March 2010 were three Austrians nominated for awards in prominent categories: Michael Haneke (director) and Christian Berger (cinematographer) were there for their work on Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon, 2009), and Christoph Waltz took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Col. Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). Attached as they were to German and American productions, few onlookers would associate them with Austria. Probably the most widely-identifiable “Austrian” in the audience was the Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, who had played Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) almost half-a-century earlier and who lost out that evening to Waltz for best supporting actor. The Austrian submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category that year was Ein Augenblick Freiheit (For a Moment Freedom, 2009), a film about exile and migration shot in Farsi, Turkish, English and German with a multi-ethnic cast by the Iranian-born director Arash T. Riahi. Welcome to the fluid world of Austrian national cinema.

This situation is nothing new. Austria has a long tradition of producing distinguished filmmakers and actors. They just tend to leave early and make their careers elsewhere. From Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder to Klaus Maria Brandauer and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the works of Austrian-born actors and directors have consistently found their way into the histories of other national cinemas. Consequently, Austrian cinema has received little scholarly or critical attention – either in Austria or abroad (1). But the situation is clearly changing and contemporary Austrian cinema has begun to receive increased recognition in recent years. Nobody is quite sure what to call this emerging cinema. Is it an Austrian New Wave that comes three or four decades after other national new waves? Some sort of neo-neo-realism? Dennis Lim’s characterisation has probably received the most mileage: in a review of recent Austrian films for the New York Times he famously dubbed the nation “the world capital of feel-bad cinema” (2).

New Austrian Film

In this excellent collection of essays on recent Austrian cinema – the first to attempt to define this body of films as a coherent whole – the editors Robert von Dassanowsky and Oliver C. Speck settle upon the term New Austrian Film. They have assembled an impressive team of scholars with diverse backgrounds, interests and perspectives to offer 27 chapters analysing various aspects of Austrian cinema at the turn of the 21st century. The picture of New Austrian Film that emerges from these studies is of a cinema that differs from traditional avant-gardes in that it does not rebel against a dominant national cinema or engage directly in a dialogue with Hollywood traditions. Nor does it emerge from a particular political movement, although the political turmoil of post-Waldheim Austria is clearly evident in these films. This is a cinema that exists to provoke its audience and challenge cinematic and cultural traditions. Stylistically, it is marked by a kind of neo-neo-realism that favours authentic locations (usually somewhere on the outskirts of Vienna), less prominent (or even non-professional) actors, and uneventful storylines. Its favorite form is the episodic narrative that intertwines several stories involving characters who are interconnected in ways that even they typically don’t recognise. Although the tag “feel-bad cinema” is reductive, this is indeed a cinema that is more interested in detailing crises of fundamental social institutions such as marriage, family, education and consumer culture than in reaffirming the strength of such institutions. But these works differ from recent “miserablist” films by directors such as Lynne Ramsay and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Whereas their films do seem to try to make their viewers feel bad, New Austrian Film rarely seems to want to make its audience feel anything. These films are commonly cold, contemplative, distanced and critical. They’re often tough to watch – with moments of shocking violence, depressing subject matter, graphic sexuality and excruciatingly protracted abuse – but rarely do they wish to provoke strong emotional reactions in their viewers. Neither the sex –nor, for that matter, the violence – is titillating. The audience is kept too much at a distance to be drawn into the film. It is in this odd combination of provocative material and contemplative presentation that New Austrian Film finds its power and its particular place in film history.

I don’t want to minimise the diversity of these films – which run from experimental documentaries to high-concept feature films – but, like the editors and authors of this volume, I do see them as a definably coherent body of work. The similarities between the films arise in part from the fact that they are made by a small and tightly-knit group of filmmakers who frequently collaborate with one another as directors, producers and writers. It’s common to see these directors show up in each other’s closing credits. This cinema is also geographically coherent; it might be called New Austrian Film, but it rarely ventures beyond Vienna’s outer districts (and when it does, it tends to venture far outside of Austria). In fact, nearly every filmmaker featured in this volume studied at the Vienna Film Academy, with the notable exception of Michael Haneke, who holds a professorship there. One could call New Austrian Film the Vienna School – and mean it pretty much literally.

Diverse Approaches to a Coherent Body of Work

However coherent the New Austrian Film might be, it is met with a great diversity of scholarly approaches in this volume. From formalist readings to impressionistic criticism to cultural studies, these chapters view New Austrian Film from an impressive variety of perspectives. Gender studies approaches are particularly prominent – and indeed, the large and important number of female directors working in recent Austrian cinema is as unusual as it is welcome. Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger reads the experimental films of VALIE EXPORT (who insists on her name being spelled in all caps) as subversive examinations of the (male) “spectacle” of commercialism, while Dagmar Lorenz finds hope for powerful new solidarities among women in Barbara Albert’s Nordrand (Northern Skirts, 1999). Imke Meyer looks at a later Albert film, Böse Zellen (Free Radicals, 2003), and finds that she combines “an incisive critique of capitalism, consumer culture, and […] globalization” (p. 104) with the continual emergence of unexpected moments of “beauty and meaning” (p. 106). Through an examination of spaces in Albert’s films, Mary Wauchope adds to this line of argument by identifying spaces of “joy and freedom” (p. 121) within an otherwise bleak and harsh landscape.

Albert gets a lot of attention in this volume – and deservedly so, since she is one of the most prolific filmmakers of her generation and Nordrand was the breakthrough film of New Austrian Film. So does Haneke, who is perhaps an outlier among the group of filmmakers considered here: he belongs to an earlier generation; has wider international recognition among scholars, critics and audiences; and has long since left Austria to make films internationally. But there is no question that his aesthetics and his subject matter are firmly in line with the mainstream of New Austrian Film – if he doesn’t exactly fit as well with the others here, it is only because most of them drew their inspiration from him. Eva Kuttenberg, Gabriele Wurmitzer and Catherine Wheatley each examine different moments of Haneke’s career and, taken together, demonstrate his obsessive interest in the deconstruction and destruction of social conventions surrounding sexuality, family and consumer capitalism. Ulrich Seidl also gets three chapters devoted to his work, which, as Mattias Frey, Justin Vicari, and Martin Brady and Helen Hughes show, overlaps thematically with Haneke’s films, but differs sharply in its aesthetics and its specifically Austrian focus. Stefan Ruzowitzky also figures prominently in the volume. Although his genre films would at first seem at odds with the other films discussed here, as Alexandra Ludewig, Rachel Palfreyman and Raymond L. Burt demonstrate, Ruzowitzky’s thwarting of audience expectations and reworking of the central elements of such well-established genres as the horror film, the Heimat film, and the historical Holocaust film are very much in line with the agendas of his New Austrian Film colleagues.

In a volume that takes a largely auteurist approach to cinema, most of the chapters are framed around specific directors. Joseph Moser, Felix W. Tweraser and Christina Guenther offer enlightening discussions that retrospectively illuminate Franz Antel, Wolfgang Glück and Ruth Beckermann as influences on and forerunners of the New Austrian Film. Vera Mund and Catherine Wheatley extend the discussion of gender and feminism beyond Albert to consider the films of Kathrin Resetarits, Valeska Grisebach and Jessica Hausner. Border crossings—both literal and symbolic—are a theme in many of the chapters in this volume. Christoph Huber, Arno Russegger and Sara F. Hall journey with the directors Michael Glawogger, Hubert Sauper and Götz Spielmann to far-flung locations in Europe, Africa, Asia and Vienna’s Floridsdorf District. And as Nikil Sathe, Andreas Böhn, Gundolf Graml, Regina Standún, and Erika Balsom nicely demonstrate in their contributions, the uncertain borders between identities, nationalities, cultures and media that are at the centre of Austrian history are also very much at the centre of New Austrian Film.

A Well-Directed Volume

Weighing in at 400 densely-packed pages, New Austrian Film offers a comprehensive first look at Austrian cinema at the turn of the 21st century. Dassanowsky and Speck have done an exemplary editorial job, bringing the contributions together nicely without forcing them into a monotonous similarity of style, approach, or argument. Like the best examples of the films it analyses, New Austrian Film weaves together a wide variety of narratives and perspectives to challenge its audience to see things differently. The volume is as handsome and professionally presented as we have come to expect from the publisher, Berghahn Books. I have only one complaint to register: the cover shows a lovely still from Ruzowitzky’s Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters; from a scene set in Monte Carlo, not Austria!) but that is the only image in the volume. Especially given the inaccessibility of many of these films, it would have been nice to see some of the images that are so strikingly described in these pages. However, a Select Filmography is appended to the end of the book, which helps readers identify the exciting new films coming out of Austria. And after reading these compelling accounts of New Austrian Film, anyone with an interest in contemporary cinema will indeed want to explore further.

Robert von Dassanowsky and Oliver C. Speck (eds.), New Austrian Film, Berghahn, New York and Oxford, 2011.


  1. A notable exception is Robert von Dassanowsky’s Austrian Cinema: A History, McFarland, Jefferson, 2005.
  2. Dennis Lim, “Greetings from the Land of Feel-Bad Cinema”, New York Times 26 November 2006: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/movies/26lim.html.