A general assumption is in the air – and it has been hanging there for a while now – that the Viennale is governed by leftist glamour. Attractive for some, disgusting for others, disputatious yet comfy for most (of us) – viewers, critics, filmmakers and the ones running the Festival. To be egalitarian and exclusive at the same time seems like an ideal image in a way. No one can refrain from appearances, as we all know, and nobody will be asking for that. We are so far beyond blue-collar retro-look requirements, that nowadays it is probably rather non-stylishness that may arouse ideological suspiciousness (besides, an intentional anti-fashion-attitude is part of a very specific Viennese way of life anyway, I guess). Nevertheless it is – again – stylishness we are talking about, when it comes to the Viennale. The looks are so brilliantly chosen, the design superb: a general hipness factor, not easy to be matched. For a now-extended period of 13 (sic!) days the community is shaped by a perfectly arranged and widely familiar network of programs, schedules and locations, in which even the most provocative names tend to form a somehow homogenous line-up, something – of course – to be scared of. Something to be denied. The trump of having an image can easily turn into the curse of being a brand mark swallowing all distinctions.
In the editorial for the festival edition of Skip – Das Kinomagazin, by far the most commercial film-orientated of all Viennale accompanying publications, one should add, festival director Hans Hurch objects to the idea of being part of a wellness-event industry. Instead:
…it is cinema alone that counts, each individual film, and the coexistence of films, the conflicts, and sometimes their productive collisions. A good and lively festival […] has to be surprising, unpredictable, and full of discoveries. The Viennale is a practical attempt to open up to cinema as a whole, without getting arbitrary. To avouch for every single film. To show Au hazard, Balthazar and Survival of the Dead, a film by Abel Ferrara, Jean-Marie Straub and Romuald Karmakar, a tribute to Lino Brocka side by side with another tribute to Timothy Carey. *
In this sense, the 2009 edition was a felicitous antidote against easy consumption, with Lars von Trier’s Antichrist as the cutting edge and Tilda Swinton as the sublime-by-edginess queen and front woman of independent cinema (her makeup-free appearance being frequently used as just another piece of evidence for the pretence of general non-stylishness). Yes – with its luxurious position allowing a universal carte-blanche attitude in programming (no competition – no necessity to show premieres), the Viennale will always play out its strength: the gathering of a sheer magnitude of a star league of its own. Names that function elsewhere as tokens of subversion and interference, here form a veritable streamline of “anti”-celebrities. The occasional overlap with the red carpet line-ups of Cannes, Venice, Toronto or Berlin in the guise of an Allen, Rivette, the Coens, or Soderbergh appears as an intended exclusive concession to a broader audience, heavyweights present near-to-their-heart-indies instead of big studio productions (Coppola’s Tetro, Ferrara’s Napoli Napoli Napoli), Herzog gets both (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Encounters at the End of the World), and two of the most blissful moments in 2009 cinema, Claire Denis’ White Material and George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead, even kind of go without saying. A cinematic paradise indeed, where all the mentioned directors and films belong to the “mainstream”!
It is, however, another list of names and evergreens that contribute to a more specific Viennale coinage: Jean-Marie Straub, with a record number of five films, Le streghe – Femmes entre elles, Joachim Gatti, Le genou d’Artemide (2007), Der Bräutigam, die Komödiantin und der Zuhälter (The Bridegroom, the Comedian and the Pimp, 1968, together with Danièle Huillet), and the outstanding Corneille – Brecht (together with Cornelia Geiser), more about it below; Pedro Costa, with his feature length documentary on Jeanne Balibar’s vocal appearance (Ne change rien); Jean-Claude Rousseau with two shorts; Peter Whitehead with his rather weird and clumsy Vienna-related video reflection, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts; or Frederick Wiseman with his extensive ballet study La danse – Le ballet de l’Opera de Paris (La Danse – The Paris Opera Ballet), another landmark in his “objective” coverage of institutional practices.
Not to forget half a dozen of Germany’s league of honour, for whom their annual autumn trip to Vienna must seem like a casual homerun. Rudolf Thome, whose exalted gender fairy tale homage to the young generation’s love-‘n-life-style, Pink, despite its brilliant cinematography and acting, as well as Thome’s ever so charming wackiness, lacks the subjective authenticity of his previous films with Hannelore Elsner (a matter of difference in age, one is tempted to think). Harun Farocki, whose return to 16mm Zum Vergleich (By Comparison), the synchronic analytical cut through production cultures worldwide, focussing on the germ cell of labour (namely bricklaying) is a masterpiece of purity and contemporary didactics. Heinz Emigholz, whose short film on two projects by the Austrian architect Friedrich Kiesler breathes the experimentalist’s seemingly fathomless fascination for the relationship between sculptural and architectural objects on the one hand and film camera positioning and movements on the other. Peter Nestler, who in Tod und Teufel (Death and the Devil) investigates his grandfather Eric von Rosen’s photo albums and travel books in order to reflect on the ambivalent career of this aristocrat, ethnologist, colonialist and hunter (the research work was tremendous, on a structural level Nestler therefore seems to sometimes get torn away by the amount of material, which he eagerly tries to grasp by splitting up narrative, comments and the reading of diary entries into several voices, the most captivating being his own, the voice of a man of trenchant contemplation). Volker Koepp, who, in his latest, this time autobiographical, exploration of the history (and histories) of the northern and eastern parts of the country, Berlin – Stettin, returns to Karin (among other characters), a former GDR welder, and confronts her cheeky appearance in footage from his Tag für Tag (Day by Day, 1979) with her sad recapitulation of today (a humble lament about gradually becoming useless in neo-capitalist times, extensively commented in Hurch’s short introduction to the Viennale catalogue, and therefore a scene of immense symbolic importance, if not to say the quintessential nostalgia for cinema’s capacity of grasping moments of truth and revive memories of contingent insight). Last and unfortunately least of Germany’s old boys comes Klaus Wyborny, whose highly idiosyncratic Das letzte Jahr (The Last Year) might be an allusion to Ovid’s Fasti as well as the upfront attempt to overcome the feeling of close death after an inadvertent cancer diagnosis, however, for the viewer these hyper-realistic video camera images of bushes, trees, houses, landscapes and seasons with their supposed loading of abstract meaning remain void and boring – and the fact that most of them come uncommented (but accompanied by the typical and – needless to say – unbearable travelling-in-the-wind mic noises instead) only supports the self-evident evasive perception strategy … to lean back and start dreaming of Wyborny’s sense-boggling earlier films, something like Sulla (2002) for instance.
In fact, the number of male German directors in their primes would be incomplete, if one didn’t mention Hartmut Bitomsky, who – as a kind of retirement present – got to present a series of smaller works by graduates from the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB), where, in the last few years (2006-09), he had dedicated his energy and charisma to teaching and mentoring. With the exception of Eva Stotz’ Tempelhof (2005), the “discoveries” in this program were more likely to be made with regard to the “older” generations, like Christian Petzold, Angela Schanelec, Philip Werner Sauber, or Carlos Bustamante.
The very outstanding German contribution, however, is Thomas Heise’s Material, a film consisting of found “auto”-footage shot between 1988 and 2008 for other films. A film arising out of carefully chosen, skilfully assembled, and scarcely (yet consistently) commented fragments of the fragile, incomprehensible, contradictory and fierce last years and days of a state which no longer exists. A film that ultimately reveals Heise’s poignant perfection and stance. A magnum opus, hopefully to enter the history of cinema as one of the greatest monuments in documentary filmmaking. What sounds so humble in the beginning (“There is always something that remains, a rest, the contingent”) develops into a master-plot of personal and filmic historiography, collecting its atmospheric rumbling from all parts of the private archive – scenes from the theatre rehearsal of Heiner Müller’s Germania Tod in Berlin, rightwing teens at the premiere of his Stau – Jetzt geht’s los, demonstrations on the Alexanderplatz, outbursts of democracy, TV transmissions of Volkskammer sessions, interviews with detainees and prison officials, backyard observations, images of the hollow ruins of the Palast der Republik. In a very dialectic way, the traces retrieved and detected – be they visual or verbal – are ultimately subjective and objective at the same time. What counts is not the outcome of history, but the permanent questioning of its “events” and the negotiability of their interpretation. All the images and words have gone through a recording process both personally- and historically-motivated. Taking place long before the reviewing process of editing, they contain a secret quality: as if they had been waiting for Heise to release them in 2009 only. What a fantastic merging of kairos and chronos! The one and only “Wende-”film. At some parts Material is Wiseman’s State Legislature augmented by crystal clear aesthetics and a hundred percent harmonisation of pace and contemplation. How frustrating, that pretentious and deliberately “daring” yet vague documentary experiments, managing to appear straight forward in style, like The Sound of Insects – Record of a Mummy by Peter Liechti or Cooking History by Peter Kerekes, seem to rake in all the awards, whereas Material is sometimes regarded as an enigmatic side-product in Heise’s work. (Same probably goes for Karmakar’s Villalobos. We must not underrate the electronic music scene trilogy.)
Another radically sublime lesson in remobilising the “demos” was held by Jean-Marie Straub together with Cornelia Geiser in Corneille – Brecht. A woman at the doorstep of a Parisian balcony, reciting verses by Corneille. Women sitting in a living room chair one after the other, reading Brecht’s Verhör des Lukullus. The art of speaking texts in combination with breaking the linearity of expression has left the mythological Pavese territory and moved on to the ancient world of imperialism. For both Corneille and Brecht, Rome was the allegorical incarnation of the monstrosity of power, and Straub’s reading session in modern-day Paris only underlines the actuality of the need for political antagonism. One strong voice is enough to evoke Brecht’s vengeful choir of slaves and shadows – no one fears the king any more, sovereignty is shaken to the ground.
Speaking of the political, the film-historical main events of the 2009 Viennale may finally be brought forward. Firstly, the big retrospective, The Unquiet American. Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., which – due to my own little private resistance against what has aptly been called the “Americanisation” of the Viennale, I won’t refer to at all … with the small exception of mentioning my gratefulness to the ferronians for dragging me into Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) and Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993), including Mant, one great film-in-film. Secondly, the Lino Brocka retrospective, my daily dose of ecstasy this year. Out of Brocka’s approximately 70 films, the Viennale showed nine major works. It’s the unbelievable intensity in narrating the inevitable, their melodramatic core, that unites them all, their socio-political and socio-realistic stance, and their entrenchment in Philippine culture and reality (especially in the slums of Manila). Here, nothing is easier, it seems, than the coexistence of perfectly crafted storytelling and overwhelming visual force. After 80 minutes (and half a life) of total self-abandonment and slavery, in the last five minutes of Bona, the titular character (played by the awesome Nora Aunor), whose love for the wannabe “film star” Gardo (Phillip Salvador, Brocka’s star-cast in a minimum of 20 films) is only nourished by his growing meanness, in a moment of ultimate catharsis, quits her charity-washing-ritual and pours tons of boiling water over his naked body. But the end of the film is taken over by an unforgettable, enormous zoom onto the face of the woman. Freeze frame.
Six years earlier, in 1974, Brocka had shot two of his most superb films – Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Weighed But Found Wanting) and Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (Three, Two, One). The first marked the foundation of CineManila, Brocka’s independent production firm. Dismantling the hypocrisy of ultra-Catholicism in a provincial town – one cannot but recall Griffith’s Self-Styled Uplifters in Intolerance (1916) – this tragic story about the special love between Berto the leper and Kuala the insane (performed by script writer Mario O’Hara and Lolita Rodriguez, two other superstars of Philippine cinema) fascinates above all by its precise point of view strategies. The narration is superimposed by the adolescent hero Junior (Christopher de Leon’s sublime appearance goes right to the heart), who gradually alienates himself from the society he lives in – Brocka’s autobiographical double, in a way – and especially from his father, whose playboy qualities once got Kuala pregnant, forcing her into a late abortion which caused her psychosis as a mother having lost her child. In Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa, consisting of three short films with completely different settings, each stronger than the other, the protagonists’ dilemma – the more they struggle for recognition, the bigger their estrangement and the more insolvable their moral conflict – is driven to a climax. Especially in the first part, “The Shapes of Hope”, a drug addict’s nightmare in a rehabilitation centre, where therapy is something between a totalitarian violence program and liberation through anarchic drill, Brocka’s monochromatic experiments display a visual and cinematographic intensity of pure, unendurable force. If Insiang (1976), maybe his most famous film, functions as a melodramatic counterpart to Bona and her revenge – opening the space for the socio-realist portrayal of family models in the poverty of Manila’s slums by loosening the genre corset – then Ina, kapatid, anak (Mother, Sister, Daughter, 1979) corresponds with the second and third part of Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa – with the caring-for-the-elders plot in “Tomorrow, the Darkness” (part three, one of the few excursions Brocka made into historical genre) and with Gina’s personal colonial disruption between her US father and her Philippine mother in “Hellow, Soldier” (part two). In Ina, kapatid, anak the process of alienation derives from the very Philippine fate of returning from the American exile, which one sister, Pura, stands for, whereas the other, Emilia, had sacrificed all her life to husband, child, and father (each of them hating the guts of her, with all their sympathy shifting towards Pura). The stepsisters’ mutual resentment, however, – and this is one of Brocka’s strengths – doesn’t lead to the assertion of moral credos of whatever kind, but rather to a compassionate understanding of human weakness and the tragic liability conflicts between those who emigrate and the ones who stay.
I could go on for hours about Brocka’s irresistible filmmaking – by going into detail, for example, about the complex structural resemblances of the three main political manifestos – Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag (Manila: In the Claws of light, 1975), Jaguar (1979) and Bayan ko: Kapit sa patalim (Bayan ko: My Own Country, 1984). In all three legendary films, the hero’s carefully depicted moral positioning leaves him alone between the fronts of political and social fight. In Maynila the naïve fisherman-“provinciano” Julio (Rafael Roco Jr. aka Bembol Roco, oh lord, quelle beauté …) learns to hate the system of overall exploitation by the megalopolis, but when his former construction site comrade joins the crowd in demonstrating, he only watches from the side … all this, it seems, just to save up his full resolution for one last decisive step: the manic revengeful killing of his lover’s kidnapper, tormentor and murderer. In the fantastic film noir Jaguar the “man who would be society”, model bodyguard Poldo (Phillip Salvador), during a gang fight, turns into a murderer in order to save the life of his boss, the sleazy ignorant playboy-feudalist Sonny. Poldo neither pursues his personal advancement out of the slums into a society of luxury as ruthless and determined as Cristy, Sonny’s lover – and the woman, Poldo falls in love with – nor is there anything that would make him stay in the shacks (unforgettable the scene, when he invites his boss and the gang to his peripheral shanty town, and these people have a ball). Poldo is in fact the only one with illusions here, a true believer, an honest protector of life, and he even believes that after the killing his boss is going to protect him. Only in the very end, after his endless chase through the huge dumps, he realises that people like Sonny have betrayed not only the lower classes but also a whole country. A very similar character is Turing (another intriguing performance by Salvador), in Brocka’s homeland dirge Bayan ko: Kapit sa patalim, a print-shop worker, who deliberately stays away from his comrades’ union strategies to avoid trouble, only to pile up his frustration to the point of no return. He freaks out and commits a crime. Believing that his problems are of a private nature and therefore ask for an individual solution, he is blind to a broader political scope – the background of the film is clearly the 1983 assassination of Benigno Aquino, president Marco’s fiercest opponent, and it passed through censorship only due to a series of tricks.
The Vienna exploration into the landscapes of Philippine film culture – hey, finally everybody now should know the story behind “The Brockas” – saw one continuation in the great catalogue contributions to the retrospective, especially the open discussion including Brocka’s contemporary, the high priest of indie-spirit Kidlat Tahimik, and the curators of the program, the younger filmmakers Khavn and Raya Martin as well as Lav Diaz, who stands for the linking generation; in fact, it is amazing how in his statements he shows so much insight into history, and so much understanding for the current processes in Philippine and international cinema as well as for political and social issues. The other prolongation was the screenings of new films. Lola by Brillante Mendoza, the current darling of the A-festivals. Then two films by the youngest and most distinct of them all, Raya Martin: firstly Independencia, a highly special formal etude in studio-, style- and genre-experiments and a reflection of the American period of Philippine history; and secondly Next Generation, to me an all too private coming out-centred piece about the production side of the film industry. An in this context important film I missed was Manila – the cooperation of Martin and Adolfo Alix Jr. as well as a special tribute to the two antipodes in their national cinema, Ishmael Bernal (Raya’s favourite) and Lino Brocka (whose legendary story of Jaguar was treated by Adolfo in a super dense and super updated way – grand!). Hidden within the Jeonju Digital Project 2009, Visitors, and next to Hong Sang-soo and Kawase Naomi, there was, however, a last and unique germ of new Pinoy cinema: Lav Diaz’ Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro (Butterflies Have No Memory) – a longer version of which is said to be in circulation already (Diaz and 40 minutes? That must be a bad joke). With his typical black-and-white video style he treats a Brocka-like conflict of exile, class struggle and the question of revenge. Should Martha, the Canadian based daughter of the director of the mining company, which has closed down and left the whole region in poverty, be kidnapped during her visit back home (as suggested by the unscrupulous Ferdinand), or is this impossible for someone who once was a close friend (like Willy)? The open end: the three guys set out for their hunt in Moriones masks, but Willy breaks down and they end their endeavour before they get close to the long legged girl with her photo camera curiosity. **
Some more hasty remarks on the Asian sector: One: what good is it to show Mizoguchi with a Benshi, if the image comes from a video-tape?? Two: North Korea was represented in its very best area, the national female soccer team, in the Austrian-North Korean co-production Hana, dul, sed…Three: like every other festival nowadays, there are too many pretty average films from South Korea at the Viennale (on the other hand: they tend to be still far more interesting than the far too many average films from the US and from France; let me cry it out once again: where on earth is Eastern Europe?? Who thinks that showing two admittedly wonderful examples of the neorealist tendencies in Romania (Politist, adj. by Corneliu Porumboiu) and Bulgaria (Eastern Plays by Kamen Kalev), one admittedly well-done documentary on the Russian-German translator Swetlana Geier (Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten [The Woman with the 5 elephants, Vadim Jendreyko]) and one doubtlessly dubious Central European potpourri doc (Cooking History) should suffice, is wrong. This means neglecting one’s responsibility in programming politics and mistaking the art of curating for an intimate lover’s exercise. Four: Amit Dutta, India’s secret weapon, celebrates neo-expressionist cinematography and demonstrates outstanding skills in merging the tempus and the mode of narration, a very sophisticated plot wandering from reality to possibility and back being the result: Aadmi ki aurat aur anya kahaniya (The Man’s Woman and Other Stories). Five: the man of the future of genre cinema – something completely discarded at this solely cinema d’auteur festival – is Cheang Pou-soi, his Yi Ngoy (Accident) being a visual point-of-view spectacle that translates the abysmal nature of paranoia through a genuinely authentic Hong Kong atmosphere into the language of film. Six: Uruphong Raksasad’s Sawan baan na (Agrarian Utopia) is one saint masterpiece, depicting two peasant families’ survival struggle in North Thailand as if documentary, when actually placing them actively in the state of agrarian utopia for some time (no machines, traditional buffalo torn ploughing, and the ingesting of whatever comes around and contains protein – dogs, birds, snakes, worms) is an act of political antagonism.
The 2009 Viennale, to come to an end, paid above-average attention to its own national film production. Not only was there established a special daily slot for New Cinema from Austria, but a local film, La Pivellina by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, opened the festival (a premiere in its history). One has to say that the little country’s film culture offers stronger voices and less harmless conceptions than theirs (in documentary film, for example, the aesthetically courageous Totó, Peter Schreiner’s latest chef d’oeuvre, the purely cinematically created sensual grasping of a man’s emotional inner truth), however, the solid doc-style fiction around the solitary shown in the nomad life of an Italian circus group in La Pivellina also doesn’t offend anyone. Quite the opposite holds true with Peter Kern’s sensational Helmut-Berger-revival Blutsfreundschaft (Initiation), the fierce neo-Nazi-and-homophobia-shock treatment with tender, mostly verbal, love and hate scenes between an old laundry shop keeper (Berger), who is haunted by the fact that he betrayed his male lover during the NS-regime, and a young disorientated nazi-sympathiser, who is a little bit too smart for his fellow dickheads, but nevertheless joins in when it comes to slaughtering migrants and social workers.
The closest friend of this 80 year-old Gustav Tritzinsky is a transsexual. And this is where my story ends. With my favourite film of the festival: João Pedro Rodrigues’ Morrer como un homem (To Die Like a Man). Tonia is a veteran of her kind and business, a drag queen, whose passion is without restraint, success, however, being taken over by the younger generation. Tonia suffers. She tumbles and falls, just like the world around her. Gets a sex change operation. Her lover, free of any sentiments, is young, beautiful, choleric and a sometimes-charming drug addict. Together they get lost in the woods, where they celebrate a magic monochromatic sit-in with their new and mysterious acquaintances, Maria Bakker and Paula. For the length of a song – and what a song it is! – the movement stops and what enfolds is the prettiest still life I have ever seen. Rodrigues’ plays with genres and genre cinema, and he leaves it. A brilliant move (others don’t even know it, so they don’t get to play with it, not to talk of transcending it). Why does it fascinate me that much? There is a queerness in Morrer como un homem, the tragedy of which lies in the fact that it takes itself seriously. This queerness allows for a perfection on the surface which – as it turns out – is far more than “just the surface”. Appearance is not the wrapper of an inner truth, it is the scale pan of truth, of identity.
Gracious but wild, serious but cool, finding subtle ways of distinction in a world of left glamour: Rodrigues formulates the old and new guidelines for this blessed festival. Its problem is not the quality of “each individual film” or the lack of good films and their “coexistence”, but rather to avoid and break an imminent deadlock (of being predictable, non-surprising, and with only a few discoveries – remember the Director’s anticipation of this criticism in the editorial, quoted above). Maybe deconstructing the comforting self-perception could be a first step into the next decade. The nest is set, but it needs to be stirred up occasionally.
* Quoted in Viennale issue of Skip.
** Let this be the moment of silence and grief in the memory of Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, who were shot on September 1st 2009 in their Manila home. May Alexis’ texts and criticine.com be read over and over again. May Nika’s issues of Ekran be held in honour. May their traces be endless. May they rest in peace.
Viennale: Vienna International Film Festival
22 October – 4 November 2009
Festival website: http://viennale.at/