There are biannual festivals, so why not try out a biannual festival report? Looking back might also help to distinguish between what will remain and momentary emergences of reason. Don’t get me wrong. This is not about Haneke’s Oscar or Seidl’s paradisaic A-festival hat trick. Just because one of them delivered a crowd-pleasing bore (Amour), whereas the other manages to stir up a rather interestingly broad audience by touching upon (wo)man’s weirdest and at the same time hyper-realistically normal sentiments (the Paradise trilogy), it doesn’t mean that this year’s Diagonale edition deserves to be talked about now more than its counterpart in 2012 did then. Which is to say that nothing fundamental has changed in terms of Austrian film funding, no leaps forward, no reforms in the cultural politics of this aggressively cultural nation. Red-white-red banners for Michael Haneke or Christoph Waltz might be pulled out by those who go to the movies once a year (the same banners probably used for Gregor Schlierenzauer, winning much more often than the heroes of Hollywood), but certainly not by people like Diagonale festival director Barbara Pichler who – together with her fantastic team – has managed to establish a real platform not only for a local scene but for cinema as such, film in its various interpretations. “Innovative forms” stand side by side with diligently compiled retrospectives, and the term “usual suspects” here applies to names like Peter Kern, Mara Mattuschka, Peter Schreiner, Norbert Pfaffenbichler, Josef Dabernig, Michaela Grill, and Ludwig Wüst, to name but a few. Numbers are growing (participant- as well as audience-wise), and everyone who comes loves it – not least for the perfect balance between novelties, networking opportunities, partying and a thorough concern for film history.
Once considered a nest of inbreeding, the Diagonale, Austria’s cinematic home-run, has opened up and energetically developed into an international event with yet a highly reflexive potential to avoid the general trends of the law in which film festivals shall turn into either mere entertainment-business-industries or spaces ruled by discourse (and disco) only. In Graz, the focus can easily be set on films, and, yes, we like that. In the end, that’s what we are here for.
Let’s start with 2013, the “magic” year, obviously a good one for features, and less than average for documentaries. To contribute to the praising of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradies: Hoffnung (Paradise: Hope) seems redundant, even though the film weighs a lot more than the post-Berlinale critiques conceded. It’s not just another outstanding demonstration of the extraordinary ability of this director, his long-term co-author (Veronika Franz) and the protagonists to set new and constantly subversive (as well as subverted) standards of contemporary cinematic authenticity. Hope marks the return from the extraordinary to the ordinary in odd existentialist life design and shows that each and every little pervert in this universe of reputed freaks concerns all of us (and not just “them”). On the other hand, an inner reluctance keeps me from joining the overall celebration of the Diagonale-award-winner Der Glanz des Tages (The Shine of Day), a veritable fest-cruiser, the success of which for me, however, is based on a misunderstanding (quite symptomatic for “our times”). Let’s put it this way: whereas Seidl/Franz turn up the fictional volume in order to get closer to “the real” (a truly sophisticated move), Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel emphasise a kind of pretentious and, I am afraid, pretty much false “documentarism”. Their protagonists, good-hearted throughout, pretend to be what they are, real people, and the cinematic framing skillfully contributes to this new visual and narrative culture of understatement, artlessness and (filmic) innocence. But beneath this overtly voided surface, there runs an enormously moralistic current: in the case of Der Glanz des Tages the two good guys, renowned stage actor Philipp Hochmair and his relative-and-counterpart “Uncle Walter” (Walter Saabel), a circus performer having served his time, split up into the good-good guy (Walter) and the not-so-good-but-still-good guy (Philipp). Together they save their neighbours, an emigrant family, whose maternal back-core has returned to Moldavia for a funeral, and therefore is not allowed back to her Vienna asylum. Not only does Uncle Walter (a complete stranger) go next door in order to play with the two little kids when their father is at work, but he also constructs a special van for an illegal (but morally righteous) repatriation of their mother. The film is overloaded with these kind of gestures, implausible and strangely affectionate at the same time.
Having said this –and to quickly mention that neither Daniel Hoesl’s self-hyperventilated Sundance entry Soldate Jeannette nor Barbara Albert’s San Sebastian participant Die Lebenden (The Dead and the Living) add anything substantial to Austrian, let alone World cinema – we may finally proceed to more substantial subject matters; in alphabetical (German) order: Diamantenfieber. Kauf die Lieber einen bunten Luftballon by Peter Kern, Grenzgänger by Florian Flicker, Das Haus meines Vaters by Ludwig Wüst, and Museum Hours by Jem Cohen.
However different in style and intention they may be, the four films share the subtle depiction of certain Austrian local specificities. Wüst and Cohen look at them from an estranged point of view (Yugo-rooted Germany meets regional Austria; Canada meets Vienna); Kern and Flicker come from within (their targets being contemporary urban class distinction in the first case and existentialist ambiguities on the state border in the latter). Each of them finds its own aesthetics, perfectly going along with their social, political, psychological or cultural “messages”.
Based on Karl Schönherr’s love triangle drama Der Weibsteufel from 1914, Florian Flicker’s more or less original story Grenzgänger (Crossing Boundaries) interweaves a number of different tasks into a steadily floating Western-style existentialist cinema. It is a sophisticated literary adaptation of a Heimat play once set in the Alps, relocated to contemporary Austrian peripheries, aka year 2000 EU border country. Hans and Jana live their life and love on their own, quiet, archaic, nature-bound, hearty. They are running a little restaurant and occasionally form a small but effective people-smuggling network, which is why the appearance of border guard Ronnie disturbs more than just the usual couple thing. In addition to the intelligent plot, Flicker delivers a psychologically precise as well as landscape-sensitive mise en scène, giving his actors all the time and opportunity to perform on the same level that he himself represents in his direction (youthful looks, mature gestures).
Film critic Bert Rebhandl described Grenzgänger as a contrary answer to the generic peculiarity of the pre-modern heimatfilm. Ludwig Wüst’s Das Haus meines Vaters (My Father’s House) is the pilot of a series called just that (heimatfilm). It is cinema, so to speak, about what does or doesn’t “feel like home” (following Robert Frank… leaving home, coming home…). In Wüst’s one-hour and more or less one-take but two-person-drama – in many ways a continuation of his Koma (2009) and Tape End (2011) – a man (Nenad Šmigoc, what an actor!) returns to his family’s deserted house in some provincial Austrian village. His former schoolmate is with him (Martina Spitzer, great, too, definitely worth the best actress award, which, of course, she didn’t get; mind that she also appears in Vanessa Gräfingholt’s hilarious short film Tuppern, in which a Tupperware party is treated as a “cultural study in the form a chamber play”). The house bears spare traces of the lives and relations that once occupied it (including a very intimate one with the long ago deceased mother), the man (hesitantly) and the woman (enthusiastically) travel back in time, towards their childhood and teenage years. Their roles have changed, he is the visitor now, while she is still kind of “at home”. Each of her gazes and gestures is loaded with a potential hope for the past-saturated future, maybe even a common future, whereas his male nature – to the extent to which this film gives way to human nature – quite naturally has made up its mind already. The openness with which the prodigal son returns to this space of unexplained (be-)longing, the dauntless yet resistant way he meets his past, his decelerated reactions and his distraction, baffled by unbelievable moments of clear-sighted, hurtful decisiveness, all add up to an intriguing character, which is scarcely described but all the more developed. Koma and Tape End had a provocative and (at first glance) sensational content level; with his latest film Wüst demonstrates that real drama doesn’t need the slightest hint of sexual or moral transgression – but can still be fundamental in touching human nature. Das Haus meines Vaters establishes a cinema of direct contemplation, smooth, recalcitrant, accurate, straight.
In Jem Cohen’s quiet, fascinating Museum Hours the cinematic experiment is of a more (deliberately displayed) artificial manner. Estranged affinity, I guess, is one conceptual core; another one – a meditation on coincidence, time spans, and the meanings and different modes of visual perception, its transfer into words and minds. A man works as a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, loves the Brueghel room and likes to observe people (remember Thomas Bernhard’s Alte Meister / Old Masters? Seen the Nicolas Mahler graphic novel based on it?). A woman leaves Montreal to visit her cousin in Vienna, where she stays for a while; she likes the flea market and the streets, the cafés and museums. The man joins her in spending some time. It’s a friendly, delicate relationship between two people, whose flaneurdom evolves a specific temporal quality, in rhythm as well as intensity, a kind of time out, an interval in life. They approach the city neither as tourists nor as inhabitants, but as something in between, they are not in a hurry, but things will eventually end. The same interval appears between the paintings in the museum (on the surfaces of which the camera travels or holds still) and some wonderfully free-spirited documentary shots of Vienna, its monuments and pigeons, sites and trams, museums and Yugo pubs, its galleries and Turkish cleaning staff. Nowhere else have high and low culture, (historical) art and (contemporary) society, male and female, the real and the imaginary been mediated so seamlessly. The whole film is a meta-commentary on a truth brought forth by art: mannerism and naturalism may both claim to produce truth in equal terms. They are both art forms. And they both concern themselves with reality. Yes, the propositions uttered are scripted, the dialogues sound like live recordings from another planet. So what? Why should an artist (and should we not consider a filmmaker an artist?) give up his right for the dialectics of near and distant, of empathy and estrangement? Cohen combines social libertinage with human sincerity, and Vienna should thank him for that, for never has it seen its face with such an admirable and honest beauty, from the old masters’ paintings to the second hand dealers’ trash piles.
As said before: Peter Kern’s Diamantenfieber (let’s call it Diamonds are Forever in English, the reciprocal value of what Germany once called the James Bond film) is a contemporary fairy tale and class struggle caricature, set in Vienna as well, its wannabe-elite city center, its bourgeois suburbia, and its wonderfully grey and dirty concrete niches along the Donaukanal, the little Danube branch leading directly to the “Friedhof der Namenlosen” (Cemetery of the Unnamed). A daughter of “good family” (the divorce-battle of her rich but morally devastated parents is fought by means of forged diamonds they unwittingly give to each other) falls in love with a poor kid. She joins his gang of street kids whose criminal activities turn out to be the only righteous move in a country where greedy socialist politicians are busy collecting fees for unremoved dog shit while dreaming about getting rich themselves instead of helping out with acute housing problems. Johannes Nussbaum got best actor, which is superb not only for the great youngster but also for Kern, the filmmaker-actor-producer-singer who interprets his function in a broader sense than most of his colleagues, somewhere between foster father, mentor, and dom. Kern has been wedged into the “trash underdog” role for quite a while now by a wannabe-normative-discourse-power, despite the fact that year by year he produces pretty much unsubsidised and therefore politically relevant films which aim for a real alternative to what he himself usually calls TV bullshit.
Kern also doesn’t mince matters when it comes to festivals, especially those featuring him, considering these institutions as mere brothels, condemning filmmakers to prostitution. Nearly every film he delivers concerns social injustice, the most appalling of which being – from top to bottom, but all of which are generally despised – the blossoming of Nazism in Austria, the stigmatisation of homosexuals, the perfidious stupidity of the entertainment industry, and the lowly position of artists, including independent filmmakers. Kern uses his physical might and rhetoric power in every screening he is granted with, during Q&As he hits the target (and more), even while changing tune very suddenly, from soft flattery to the rudest abuse.
It was at the 2012 Diagonale that Kern finally became the title of a film: Kern, the intriguing documentary and debut by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala about this Austrian enfant terrible numero uno. His own by then latest Kern-Kraft-Werk, Glaube, Liebe, Tod, premiered in the Berlinale Panorama, screening immediately after the eccentric biopic. The experiment worked out, the encounter between extroverted, capricious performance and (self-)exposure on screen and stage produced a multilayered zone of reflection and affective outburst. This was all the more surprising since, unsurprisingly enough, the genesis of the Kern-film was overshadowed by numerous accusations, allegations, and vituperations. At one stage, Kern apparently even threatened to sue Ulrich Seidl, the producer. Given the precarious arrangement of this certainly specific portrait, the premiere of the documentary was a huge success for everyone, audience, directors, and most of all (it seemed) the film’s “subject”, Peter Kern, who from the first appearance in this film leaves no doubt that he considers Franz/Fiala total losers, and himself the real director of their work.
Meanwhile a whole range of internationally-renowned festivals have shown Kern, and this film deserves it. It develops into a kind of love affair, in which l.o.v.e.’s mightiest ambivalences like “come-closer-but-leave-me-alone” or “I-love-you-but-therefore-you-must-hate-me” are performed at the highest level (in terms of human and cinematic existence). Avoiding any kind of voyeurism, the film still discloses the timid nudity of his physical appearance, which any viewer would be tempted to call enormous (including the ones looking through the camera lens and the one looking over his own shoulder – since Fiala/Franz more than once put Kern in front of a screen, opening up a variety of reflections). The film (nice titling, by the way, merging name, human being and persona into one simple signifier) only renders this gesture of exposure, which seems to be actually produced by the mutual act of voluntary and at the same time forced “cohabitation”. In most scenes it is Peter Kern himself who cunningly points to the link between the two forms of monstrosity the film reveals, the physical and the psychological (displaying it – this link and its brutality – often enough as the only way of expressing a true and silent, almost speechless form of tenderness and sensitivity). Some human souls need the full frontal treatment to get laid (bare, I mean) – abusive speech acts, verbal exorbitance, emotional auxesis, physical excess. All this makes Kern an honest film. And, as already mentioned, more a profession of love than an analysis (from the directors’ perspective). Freud offered a sofa, but denied the gaze. Kern is on his own sofa, within his own four walls; Fiala/Franz offer a camera and a screen, pro-, e- and even in-voking his gaze, and with it a multitude of gazes. And Kern takes it on, creating a whole universe of endo- and auto-reflections, a mis en abyme into his (and our) soul/s.
Last year the festival’s fiction section was rather poor, exceptions being two internationally acknowledged films, Karl Markovics’ Atmen and Markus Schleinzer’s Michael, as well as two more or less ignored ones, Edgar Honetschläger’s fascinating surreal painting Aun – der Anfang und das Ende aller Dinge and Mara Mattuschka/Reinhard Jud’s experimental hyperreal parable QVID TVM. But back then, in 2012, Austria’s high quality documentarism reputation was exhaustively justified: Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory; Way of Passion, Joerg Burger’s physically (com)passionate Trapani-at-Easter exercises; What is Love, Ruth Mader’s disillusioning collection of miniatures about people’s conceptual search for happiness; Nr. 7, Michael Schindegger’s personal portrait of his neighbours in Vienna’s second district (known as the “Jewish quarter”), a highly likable slap in the capital city’s face, generally made-up by an incredible xenophobia; or Gerald Hauzenberger’s Der Prozess about an outrageous trial against animal rights activists, and thus about civil society’s impotence before the law and the state.
The 2012 award for best documentary went to Vienna-based Polish director Dariusz Kowalski for Richtung Nowa Huta (Towards Nowa Huta), the depiction of the transformation process of a former socialist model city – and, on a larger scale, the attempt to display a Central European showcase in post-communist cultural history, focusing more on ways of living or social gestures and rituals than on “historical events”. I very much liked Kowalski’s calm, solid, mature, and serious documentary approach, the formal precision, the rhythm of editing, the patient way of observation (especially of some teenagers’ seemingly endless ennui, hanging out at the empty basins and deserted sports grounds), or the delicacy in portraying some broken personal start-up (his)stories. However, on a political level, the film could have “exploited” the extraordinariness of Nowa Huta in terms of a typical socialist playground (for winners and losers, masters and servants, nomenclature and average comrade, or secret policemen and oppositionists) a lot more. Against this rather indecisive background the ex-Solidarność-members turn into mere figures of nostalgia, as does the historically well-informed guide with his red-retro-CCCP-style-fiat-polski-excursions (be it for American tourists or for the film’s audience). It is one thing to make a statement about the apolitical times we live in. It would be another, however, to take a position within this ideological nirvana.
From this point of view it was certainly Austria’s most experimental documentary filmmaker, Michael Palm, who should have won the award for his outstanding Low Definition Control – Malfunctions #0, a polyphonic essay on observation technologies in the age of personal transparency and safety culture. Palm interviews a number of scientists and experts whose analytical discourse he places over a wide-range visual layer of views of and on public space. The way his montage produces techno-philosophical insights as well as open zones of reflection demonstrates Palm’s professional skills as a film editor (without whom half of Austrian non-fiction filmmaking would probably look rather poor). This year it was Elena Tikhonova’s and Dominik Spritzendorfer’s enthralling essay on (post-)Soviet electronic history, Electro Moskva, that he saved from sprawling into too many directions. Together with Filip Antoni Malinowski’s Eksmisija (Resettlement), which finds an astonishingly perfect (close) distance with which to portray his grandparents and the way they are being driven out of their lifelong apartment by force majeur, aka neo-capitalism, this film about synthesizers and the theremin, about Cold War engineering and do-it-yourself techno-tinkering, in contrast to most of the other 2013 documentaries shows some awareness of formal questions.
Speaking of formal awareness, and at the same time feeling the need to finally come to an end: this country is overloaded (in the best sense of the word) with cinematic experimentalists. This is proved by Peter Schreiner’s Fata Morgana, a spiritual transgression into another world; proved by Norbert Pfaffenbichler, whose Lon Chaney footage film, A Messenger from the Shadows (Notes on Film 06 / A Monologue 01), leaves just one desire unfulfilled – we have to wait until next year for the sound-film complement about Boris Karloff; proved by the wonderful brain-and-body-complexes Mara Mattuschka keeps delivering (this year’s Perfect Garden, co-directed with Chris Haring, will be remembered not only for Stephanie Cumming’s hilarious orgiastic speech act performance); proved by Josef Dabernig, whose oeuvre by now adds up to an exhaustive, superbly singular “personale” already; and last but not least proved by film history, the Ferry Radax retrospective in 2012 for example.
That’s the other adorable aspect of this festival that needs to be pointed out: its rootedness in film history. There are individual rediscoveries like Die toten Fische by Michael Synek (1989), there are systematic ones – like the established program slot “Shooting Women”, bringing up Valie Export’s highly watchable pro-feminist but anti-PC Menschenfrauen (1979) again, or the newly invented series “Austrian Pulp” by the newly invented Institut Schamlos – including the screening of a milestone in the country’s underground cinema, Carl Andersen’s (aka Caro B.’s) I Was a Teenage Zabbadoing (1988).
Synema, the Society for Film and Media, keeps working on historical tributes to Austrian born emigrants. In 2012 Charles Korvin’s congenial documentary Heart of Spain on the Blood Transfusion Institute during the Spanish civil war, an exercise in metaphor analysis of the term “heart” as well as a left-wing front-style editing gun machine, together with the cute-dimple-guy’s first leading part side by side with “her goddess” Merle Oberon, William Dieterle’s more than delightful This Love of Ours (1945), were some of the lesser known highlights; in 2013 Paul Czinner was in focus, Elisabeth Bergner’s back bone, so to speak, rediscovered as an innovative figure in genre cinema.
Germany’s contemporary maître in this field, Dominik Graf, enlightened a predominantly young audience with his extraordinary plots, skillfully edited narration, and unbeatable conducting of actors, accompanied by precise (and film history-wise well-informed) live audio comments, and the Austro-German male core of the Ferroni Brigade, Christoph Huber and Olaf Möller (authors of a new book on Graf), did everything in their power to make “it” shine. Well, it did, guys!!
There’s enthusiasm in the air. Pretty fresh air, by the way.
Diagonale Festival of Austrian Film
12-17 March 2013
20-25 March 2012
Festival website: http://www.diagonale.at/en/