The 2020 Viennale was an extraordinary and memorable event. Carried by the courage, conviction and tenacity of its director Eva Sangiorgi and her team, the festival was held in cinemas throughout the city of Vienna with live audiences, guests and filmmakers presenting their films in person. It was an undeniable gamble. Uncertainty and the threat of cancellation hovered over the event until the last minute, but fortunately the festival was able to go ahead and films were shown in ideal conditions. This edition, the Viennale’s ever rigorous and demanding program provided an opportunity to explore the work of a group of writer-directors from a relatively obscure moment in Austrian cinema: the 1970s. The retrospective Austrian Auteurs of the 70s, elegantly curated by Florian Widegger, program director for the Metro Kulturhaus, fell within the framework of the traditional collaboration between the Viennale and the Filmarchiv Austria, which in 2002 bought the historic Metro Cinema, renovating and transforming it into an outstanding cinema venue.
The 1970s were a moment apart in the history of Austrian cinema, a time of transition between its post-World War II past, dominated by largely commercial productions made for easy export to Germany, and what we could define as its current era, distinguished by an arthouse cinema conscious of its specific national traits and recognised the world over. The real turning point came in 1980, when national film funding to support Austrian movie production was established. It had already been announced ten years prior but never enacted. This crucial financial tool allowed Austrian cinema to develop beyond mere commercial aims. During the 1970s, Austrian filmmakers could only count on very limited and specific state funding. This era of productive limbo is known for its wealth of ground-breaking visual artists such as Valie Export, Kurt Krenn and Peter Kubelka. But an equally diverse yet interconnected group of director-writers also found this set of circumstances an ideal playground for developing their creativity. Free from the boundaries imposed by conventional production processes, filmmakers like Herbert Holba, Wilhelm Pellert, Mansour Madavi, John Cook, Antonis Lepeniotis and Angela Summereder, with very limited financial resources and a total self-abnegation, managed to create a succession of works carried by an aesthetic rigour, social commitment and an extraordinary formal inventiveness. Drawing inspiration from theatre, photography, music and literature, these auteurs bravely went against the wave. Poetry, humour, fantasy and song come together in these films to scratch the veneer of the status quo, casting a light on the malaise of youth, on social injustice, discrimination against women, intolerance and the Second World War’s cumbersome historical baggage. Each film is different in style – documentary elements alternate with performance moments and psychedelic settings with realist visions – but they are all steeped in a spirit of rebellion and resistance, and thoroughly infused with humanism. Although they did not form a specific group as such, the filmmakers knew each other and eventually worked together on each other’s projects. Like an amazing fleeting explosion, their creativity was extinguished from the moment the state funding was made available. The new, more-structured production conditions no longer fully granted them creative autonomy. They had to strike another way, drifting away from the cinema world and finally falling into oblivion.
The first part of the program, made up of five particularly significant films, was shown during the Viennale. The second part, originally to be screened after the end of the festival, was moved to the digital platform of the Metro Kulturhaus due to COVID-related cinema closures. 1
Our exploration into the 1970s Austrian film universe fittingly starts with a movie about a new world. Die ersten Tage (The First Day, 1971) by Herbert Holba takes us to a post-apocalyptic no man’s land between yesterday and tomorrow”.2 The First Day is a film-manifesto, a psychedelic trip, a genre-busting work. A critic, producer, screenwriter, director and brilliant cinephile, Herbert Holba (1932-1994) holds a special place in Austria’s cinema history. At a very early age, the self-taught Holba discovered his passion for cinema, beginning by collecting photographs, articles, posters and films. In 1965, this collection, which had in the meantime caught the eye of cinema historian Peter Spiegel, was the most extensive private collection of Austrian cinema and was gathered together in a documentation centre. In 2001, it was annexed to the Filmarchiv Austria and today is a vital part of it. ACTION, the legendary cinephile club founded by Holba, was for years the heart and soul of various activities, including a Cine-club, a movie theatre and a magazine, and drew a large group of young followers. The First Day, his first and only self-produced, avant-garde fiction film, draws inspiration from early cinema. Holba dedicated it to his idols, the Skladanowsky brothers and the German silent screen era directors Manfred Noa and Otto Rippert. Far from going unnoticed when it was released, the film was selected in 1971 for the International Competition of the Berlinale.
Described by its author as a “cinematogram with music, sounds and 67 captions”, The First Day takes us to a dystopian world that is violent, languid, provocative and resplendent at the same time. The subject, taken from a radio play and rewritten with the help of Wilhelm Pellert and Ernst A. Ekker, is conceived as a silent film, accompanied by music and punctuated with captions. The lack of voice is counterbalanced by the hypnotic power of the melodies composed ad hoc by Pater Noster, a Viennese Prog-Rock cult band, which after two memorable LPs mysteriously vanished into nowhere.
Surprisingly, this “no man’s land” is not located in a dark, dusty environment but a wonderfully bucolic, summery and sunny landscape, a sort of earthly paradise. The nature glistening in the light, gentle hills, leaves fluttering in the breeze, babbling brooks and a lake make up the grandiose setting where a relentless, cruel and bloody struggle between opposing gangs takes place. Man’s will to dominate, his thirst for power, outlive any catastrophe. In Holba’s post-apocalyptic world, the young survivors have reverted to a nomadic semi-animalistic state, still struggling to establish their supremacy over others. The political meaning of the film’s allegory is indisputable. The plot moves from one episode to the next revealing recurring archetypal characters: the Leader, the Loner, the Fool, the Girl, the Refugee, the “likeable” Knight, and the “less likeable” Knight. These barefoot humans covered with filthy rags are constantly on the alert, plotting revenge, preparing ambushes and attacks in sudden bursts of violence and cruelty. They grope ahead in this hostile universe reading mysterious signs, and entrusting their fates to powerful totems and obscure rituals. Amidst this turmoil, the camera lingers on details: a leaf carried away by water, the branches of a tree against the light, enhancing their beauty. On his first film, cinematographer Xavier Schwarzenberger, who worked on Fassbinder’s films soon after, flirts with the sun, favouring backlit shots; images are thus immersed in a diffused light, almost a haze, that reinforces the film’s unreal atmosphere. Despite this beauty, though, we mustn’t be fooled. The film ends on a bitter note; the “good guys” seem to have won for the moment, but this happy ending is not final. With a last caption, Holba warns us that out there, an evil knight is still wandering nearby and is poised to take revenge. The film was shot in the Zammelberg area of Carinthia. Team members and actors were Holba’s friends, and many of the young people we see on screen had joined the ACTION-Filmclub that Holba started in Vienna. Beyond its political-ideological statement, from today’s perspective, the film offers a vivid portrait of a group of young people from the ‘70s. What comes across so powerfully is their freedom and boisterous hippie spirit, their enthusiasm for making films together, the pleasure of being in touch with nature, and the hope that they might change the world.
Stepping away from the far future and nature’s open horizons, the next film brings us back to the present day and the urban landscape of Vienna. A highly explosive work and indisputable proof of Mansur Madavi’s creative genius, Die glücklichen Minuten des Georg Hauser (Magic Glass, 1974) is the story of one individual’s all-out rebellion against the dictates and expectations of a capitalist society.
In the opening sequence a series of fleeting black and white photos take the viewer through the protagonist’s life from the cradle to the present: he seems happy, carefree, he even smiles at the camera. It suddenly cuts to a young man with a serious face and square framed eyeglasses. Everything has changed: Georg is about to start his first job. His boss gives him the welcome speech in a falsely good-natured paternalistic tone, immediately setting the record straight:
Bring on the zealous, ambitious and hardworking young people! With us everyone has a chance, but the best man always wins, the strongest survives. Sure it’s a bit hard, but this is the law of nature! The working world is no kindergarten. You too will find out soon enough!
Georg’s fate is sealed. Impassive, rigid as a toy soldier, he leaves without a word. His voice is never heard once throughout the entire film. Even on the rare occasion we see him talking we don’t perceive any sound. Georg’s existential malaise translates to silence on the soundtrack. Absolutely compliant with the rules and expectations of the capitalist society his daily life follows a perfectly organised routine. As Georg, Walter Bannert, the recently deceased Austrian director, producer and screenwriter, perfectly embodies both his impassivity and his sudden flashes of madness.
With great accuracy, Mandavi traces the steps that drive the protagonist from resignation to rebellion, from a troubling normality to the redemption of madness. Madavi’s point of view is subjective. The sound, rather than being realistic, is mental, synchronised entirely in post-production to create a sense of constant unease. Words emerge occasionally from a stuck record, repeating the same chorus over and over, or from a television program indirectly reflecting the protagonist’s state of mind. Georg’s character is represented through repetitive daily tasks: every day he turns off the alarm clock, gets up, goes to the bathroom, shaves, combs his hair and gets dressed, looks at himself in the mirror; he adjusts his square-rimmed glasses, climbs into his red BMW, roars into the maze of morning traffic, and arrives at the office where he supervises a rank of typists working at a hellish pace. Surly and lonely, he has a brief fling with a typist, projecting onto her the insistent image of a beautiful and ephemeral woman, a chimera who gradually becomes an obsession. Various warning signs turn into ill-fated omens.
When, following an accident, Georg breaks his glasses and replaces them with a pair of round lenses, he suddenly starts seeing reality as a jumble of unpunished crimes. Seemingly insignificant on first glance, the shape of the eyeglasses hides the symbolism underpinning the whole film: the rectangle stands for normality and order, and the circle, for madness and confinement.3
One day Georg gets up, takes an axe, and starts furiously smashing apart his red BMW. Filmed in slow motion, this crucial scene is underscored by an Indian song that echoes like a joyful liberating mantra. As he moves ecstatically around the car, smashing it as if he were dancing, Georg smiles for the first time. By destroying his car, he demolishes the status symbol par excellence of the economic-social system that oppresses him. Yet this act of rebellion catapults him ipso facto beyond the margins of society, making him a dangerous man, an enemy of the system, leading him straight to a psychiatric hospital. His life there is a mirror image of the apparently “normal” one before. As the doctors peer at him through the rectangular frames of their glasses, Georg must literally go round in circles along a yellow circular path in the hospital courtyard.
The director skilfully manages to alternate sequences of great emotional intensity with moments of subtle self-mockery. The fluid camera work follows the protagonist’s mental state, joining him in mad chases through the corridors of the psychiatric hospital, following fleeting visions of the woman he’s obsessed with, or stalking him outside, in an unbridled race to flee the hospital staff who want to prevent him from escaping. The rare “happy minutes” in Georg’s life – as the German title of the film suggests – lurks in fleeting childhood memories. Georg’s image as a confident boy in training emerges for a second and at once the film is lit with bright, intense colours. The colours are equally radiant in the film’s powerful final shot. With a last, desperate blow, Georg manages to break down his cell door: behind it, surprisingly, we see a wonderful empty beach. Georg ecstatically runs to the open sea.
A solitary, independent writer-director, the Azerbaijani Iranian Mansur Madavi personally oversaw most aspects of each of his films. Running through all his works are structural complexity, formal freedom, inventiveness and political commitment. His oeuvre includes a handful of feature films made with an exemplary economy of means: Notausgang (1976), Die blinde Eule (1979) and Ein wenig sterben, (1981). His later projects were doomed to encounter all kinds of setbacks: Dicht hinter der Tür (1984) was his last unfortunate attempt to make a film with public funding. Two self-produced films followed: in 1991, Lange Schatten, an anti-Ayatollah thriller, and in 1999, With Closed Eyes, a cryptic autobiographical film shot in Chile that signalled Madavi’s retirement from the cinema scene. Although Madavi may be, unfortunately, a director who is relatively unknown to today’s audiences, we should not forget that his films were shown and awarded internationally in the 1970s
Of all the films presented in this series Jesus von Ottakring (1975) by Wilhelm Pellert, is possibly the most direct when it comes to confronting Austrian society with its historical responsibility. A true point of reference for the filmmakers featured in this retrospective, novelist Wilhelm Pellert not only was friends with many of them, but he also helped out on their films. A member of the ACTION group from 1968, he later worked as a co-screenwriter, assistant and actor on The First Day. After that, he put his energies into co-writing with Helmut Korherr the stage play, Jesus von Ottakring. Adapted for the screen, it became the first and only feature film he directed.
Jesus von Ottakring is a milestone in Austrian cinema. Songs, vaudeville and Passion Play come together in a stirring work where sarcasm and satire are interwoven with lively documentary takes. Set in a very specific time, stuck between the gruelling post-war period and a present of newfound prosperity, Jesus von Ottakring vehemently points the finger at the age-old evils: intolerance, racism, prejudice, bigotry, nastiness, and the memory of a Nazi past that has been far too easily wiped from the collective conscience. Highly acclaimed upon its release, Jesus von Ottakring won several international awards.
Through allegory Pellert incisively shows us how deeply entrenched the mindset of a large part of the population still was in that era, and hence the generational conflict depicted in the film is, first and foremost, an ideological and political one. The twenty-year-olds in Jesus von Ottakring have nothing to do with that wartime period, and struggle against the prejudiced and opinionated mindset of their parents’ generation. The adults, in turn, feel that their children who have had every material comfort they never had, express no gratitude. Even worse: they are rebelling and dreaming of equality and a better, more just society for all.
The head of this youthful revolt, the undisputed leader of the “new” revolutionary ideas, is a young man who preaches peace, social justice and tolerance for all, regardless of social background or ethnic origin. The entire plot revolves around this charismatic character, but he is never seen. Not even once. What we know about him comes from hearsay. Ferdinand Novaceck, “a poor devil”, as he is called in the film, is nicknamed Jesus because of his beard and long hair. The son of evacuees who came to Vienna to save themselves during the war, his charm is undeniable, and his many young admirer-disciples find him fascinating and inspiring. But others find him disturbing. He arouses suspicion in the conformist adults; the people of the neighbourhood, the local politicians, the owner of a bread factory, the police. Drawing on the traditional Passion Play, Pellert adapts the story of the Passion by transposing it to the popular petty bourgeois Vienna of the Ottakring district.
The film starts at the end of “Jesus’” story, the commemoration of his death in an official ceremony in the courtyard of the building where he was murdered some time before by an exasperated crowd, the same crowd that today is graciously honouring his memory. Cascading around the phantom centre represented by the figure of “Jesus” is a series of episodes; various individuals who at first seem to have nothing in common, all turn out to be connected and involved with each other, converging in their collective hatred for what they regard as public enemy number one.
Music is a crucial element of the film. Jesus von Ottakring includes a large number of biting songs that, far from merely providing a soundtrack, are actually a vital part of the plot, a commentary on the action as it takes place. The lyrics and music were composed by Pellert, and the arrangements performed by famous cabaret artist Hans Peter Heinzl, who appears briefly as an entertainer at a popular outdoor restaurant.
Filmed with impressive verve, Jesus von Ottakring invites us to travel through the society and the city itself, offering us a wide variety of characters, situations and places that clearly capture the basic truth of things. Choosing the sarcastic tone of a popular play to express his concern, Pellert boldly tears off the cloak of respectability behind which a large part of Austrian society hides. The film seems to suggest that no mercy should be shown towards those, and there are many, who avoid their personal and historical responsibilities by perpetuating a policy of concealment and denial to the bitter end.
Vienna is the ideal terrain for again scrutinising a young man’s existence in Schwitzkasten (Clinch,1978) by John Cook. A sensitive coming-of-age chronicle, the film offers us one of the subtlest and most perceptive portraits of the Viennese working-class world in the 1970s. Filmed in 16mm with a fluid and almost documentary style, Clinch’s realism stands completely outside the canons of the Austrian cinema of the time. Canadian-born artist John Cook (1935-2001), after making a name for himself as a fashion photographer in Paris, in the late 1960s decided to change direction, following his then-partner, Austrian model and now photographer, Elfie Semotan, to her native country. The speed with which Cook absorbed the Viennese atmosphere translates into a brief but no less significant series of films that make him one of the most important “Austrian” directors of the 1970s. Clinch is his third film.
Taken from the novel Das Froschfest by Helmut Zenker, the story follows Hermann Holub, a young worker, during a decisive summer in his life. Working in Vienna’s public gardens, Hermann seems to get along well with his colleagues until the day he finds out that the election for the group’s next union delegate is being manipulated by their boss. Exasperated by this injustice, in a fit of rage, he drops everything and leaves. This episode marks the beginning of his adventures. He aimlessly wanders the streets of Vienna, sleeps with his girlfriend, visits an intellectual friend, stops for a drink in a tavern, and seeks comfort with a prostitute. Now jobless, he goes back home to live with his family. He gets into trouble by arguing with his brother, spends time in prison, and on his release, is determined to bring order to the chaos of his life.
The way the plot is woven actually says very little about this film’s tone. The unique atmosphere of Clinch rests on Cook’s ability to draw his characters with zest and spontaneity, to create authentic dialogues, to stage situations and human relationships by reading the flaws in the souls of the protagonists, without ever judging anyone. Although based on a precise and detailed script, the film seems to be shot like a free-style documentary. Made with an absolute economy of means (including no music and direct sound), Clinch immerses us in the world of the Viennese proletariat with its concerns, its dreams, and its lively and inimitable dialect. The cast is made up exclusively of non-professional actors, and the results are surprising. The film is built entirely around actor Hermann Jurasek. Small in stature and slender, Hermann looks like a teenager. His blonde, messy hair and bushy moustache stand out on a deadpan face – except for his gaze, which is intense and bewildered, or immensely sad. This melancholy and a sort of nonchalance tempered by self-mockery, make Hermann a captivating character. Lost in the routine of a daily life that he gives in to more by indolence than conviction, bored and disoriented, he lets himself be carried along by the flow of events. At every step he seems to waver. The camera is deft in following this maze-like course, where intense close-ups of Hermann’s face alternate with long shots with the protagonist blending into the city’s grandiose scenery.
Through calibrated editing, Cook gives the narrative material a flowing and, at the same time, hypnotic pace. With a few brushstrokes, he manages to create a gallery of memorable characters around Hermann: his girlfriend Vera, his family, a literary critic friend, and his work colleagues, who all come to life as vibrant portraits of real people. The sequences dedicated to Hermann’s meetings with Ehrlich, an old comrade, now a socially-committed poet, are true anthology pieces, not only because of the witty dialogues but also because Ehrlich is played by Franz Schuh, today one of the country’s most eminent literary critics. The film’s happy ending has often been interpreted as a sign of resignation; in fact, Hermann does not abdicate, nor bend to society’s expectations, but simply finds his way and carves out a tailor-made happiness beyond conventions.
Cook puts his powers of observation and talent for framing to good use, creating a deeply personal, intense but short oeuvre. Following his debut, I Just Can’t Go On (1972), a vivid medium-length documentary about his housekeeper and her boxer companion, came Langsamer Sommer (Slow Summer, 1976) a completely self-produced work midway between autobiography and fiction, and considered to be his masterpiece. After Clinch, Artischocke (1982) was a flop and put an end to Cook’s filmmaking career in Austria. Cook went back to live in France where he worked for years on a final film project, Jose Manrubia Novillero d’Arles (1990), also devoting himself to writing and photography.
The last film in this retrospective was Zechmeister (1981), the debut film of Angela Summereder. Unlike her colleagues in the 1970s, Summereder was able to make use of a more traditional production process, since the new state funding took effect in 1980. However, the framework imposed by the state heavily clashed with her unconventional methods and ideas. Disturbing and sinister, with a spark of carefully-paced self-mockery Zechmeister cuts like a knife. Based on a real event, the film tells the story of a judicial error committed against an innocent woman, Maria Zechmeister, sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime she did not commit. Maria’s fate had obsessed the filmmaker even as a teenager. Decades later, Summereder realised that Maria Zechmeister had been sentenced first and foremost because she was a woman.
Here are the facts behind the film’s origin: in 1949, Maria Zechmeister was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Court of Ried (Upper Austria) for having poisoned her husband, without evidence and without a confession. The verdict was based solely on hearsay and rumours.
The film’s form is a hybrid created partly from documentary scenes shot by Summereder of Zechmeister herself (released following an amnesty after 17 years in prison), her sister and some former witnesses, and partly from a series of fictional scenes played by professional actors, in which scattered events related to the story are imagined and reconstructed, also relying on a mass of legal documents such as the minutes of the trial or the medical examiner’s report. The fictional scenes are theatrical, anti-naturalistic even when they play out in the most natural setting under an ancient lime tree, on the Inn River, or in the town cemetery.
In contrast, the documentary scenes with Maria and her sister are filmed from an angle that allows us to sense the presence of the speaker’s body, perhaps showing us a shoulder or hands, but never revealing a face. In these cases, the physical presence is condensed into the voice, the recounting of facts, memories, impressions.
Assembled in blocks, Zechmeister consists of a series of scenes that stand on their own but are closely connected to one other. The director composes, image after image, the gigantic fresco of a crime, but a different crime from the one allegedly committed by Maria. Choosing distancing as her weapon, Summereder lays bare the flip side of the coin, step by step revealing the petty mentality of the villagers and the stubborn prejudices that allowed an innocent to be condemned with impunity. The director does not strive for an historical reconstruction of the facts, nor does she want to involve us emotionally. On the contrary, she provides a look at the many factors that made this event possible, leaving it open to our interpretation.
The film, shot in 16mm, has a slightly grainy look that shows a chromatic range with nuanced tones; the ploughed fields are pale green, a soft mist hangs over the river. In this remembrance of the past, Summereder is looking for hypotheses, traces, answers that explain Zechmeister’s destiny. Every frame becomes a field of investigation; the director’s gaze shapes it by favouring geometric compositions. Long tracking shots run through the space, reproducing the inexorable flow of time.
Zechmeister is a montage film. Its evocative power lies in the constant discrepancy between sound and image. Playing with a plethora of off-screen voices, the director creates a dense web of references and unsuspected connections. Touches of humour and satirical moments arise here and there, tempering the seriousness of the facts with the liberating power of self-mockery. Zechmeister is a film about a void. Over the course of the story, we realise that the question of whether or not Maria killed her husband gradually becomes less and less important; the investigation aims rather to explore a status quo. But, most importantly, Zechmeister reveals a woman’s voice. This voice has a dual aspect: the director’s voice and Maria Zechmeister’s voice. For the first time, Zechmeister is invited to tell her side of the story and express her thoughts to another woman. The director is not there to judge, but to give Maria the time and space to speak.
The film is female-oriented behind the camera as well, through the participation of cinematographer Hille Sagel and editor Dörte Völz. In this radical film, which screened at the Internationales Forum des Jungen Films in Berlin in 1982, Summereder scratches the obsolete veneer of provincial conformism by exposing her country’s hypocritical, petty mentality and cumbersome historical baggage, opening the way to a whole host of filmmakers, the so-called Austrian New Wave, who, in the decades to follow, continued to explore the hidden face of society even more harshly, turning this stance into a veritable trademark of Austrian cinema.
Nonetheless, what happened to the vast majority of the writers-directors of 1970s also happened to Angela Summereder. As curator Florian Widdegger sharply observed; “The new funding system simply required a different type of artist: professionals.”4 After this crucial film, Summereder moved away from filmmaking for a long period, and it was only in the 2000s that the director returned to making films, a practice she continues to this day.
22 October – 1 November 2020
Festival website: https://www.viennale.at/
- The films shown as part of the online program on the digital “Heimkino” of the Metro Kulturhaus from 6-26 November were: Stadtbahn (Antonis Lepeniotis, 1966), Der Tod des Dr. Antonio durch die Renaissance der geistigen Gesellschaft (Antonis Lepeniotis, 1968), Ho Anthropos (Antonis Lepeniotis, 1970), Das Manifest (Antonis Lepeniotis, 1974), Flipper (Herbert Holba, 1968), Genesis (Herbert Holba, 1969), Ein wenig Sterben (Mansur Madavi, 1981), Weht die Angst, so weht der Wind (Manfred Kaufmann, 1982). ↩
- This quote is the first caption of The First Day. ↩
- Far from just being a symbol, the idea of the circle almost obsessively structures Madavi’s mise en scene: camera and character’s movements are repeatedly circular, as are many set design elements as well. ↩
- Viennale program, p. 180. ↩