If Austrian film is less renowned than some other European cinema, still, it is a valuable and eclectic duchy of its own, and the Diagonale Festival of Austrian Film impressively curates and promotes this smaller but vibrant tradition. Immersing myself in a broad swath of the past year’s cinema at this festival’s 21st installment, I was, at the outset, more familiar with the past eminences of Austrian filmmaking – Erich von Stroheim, Hedy Lamarr, Romy Schneider, Klaus Maria Brandauer – than its current luminaries.
And some of the best-known contemporary Austrians don’t seem all that Austrian: Michael Haneke, the country’s most prominent director, screened his latest film Happy End here. It is a suitably intense, angst-ridden, noirish delight, featuring Isabelle Huppert alongside Jean-Louis Trintignant, reprising their wonderful teamwork from Haneke’s 2012 film Amour, and set in Calais, so it all seemed assez bien Français, nicht österreichisch (that is, more French than Austrian). The most famous native actor may be Arnold Schwarzenegger (I didn’t have time to visit his “museum” a few miles away in Thal), which, again, doesn’t greatly help pin down the Austrian cinematic zeitgeist.
But if Diagonale’s forte is their keen spotlight on recent work and emerging cinematic trends, they also reprised some of Austria’s older touchstones, including Jessica Hausner’s Lovely Rita (2001) and a retrospective program from the 1970s-era politically nonconformist Filmladen collective. Mixed in with new discoveries were solid offerings by some of the usual suspects: for example, sixpackfilm, the incubator for Austrian film and video art, which has distributed three of the last four Diagonale Innovative Film Award winners (including this year’s). Documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter added an award to the half dozen he has previously won here for such films as Über die Jahre (Over the Years, 2015) and Pripyat (1999). Another acclaimed documentary filmmaker on the 2018 program, Ruth Beckermann (who came up with the Filmladen group), has a strong track record at Diagonale with past prizes for Those Who Go, Those Who Stay (2013) and Die Geträumten (The Dreamed Ones, 2016). And a lifetime acting award to octogenarian Ingrid Burkhard – from Toni Erdmann (2016), Komm Süsser Tod (Come Sweet Death, 2000) and many popular television roles – saluted the established Austrian canon. So the new was at least somewhat grounded in the familiar.
Perhaps my main insight as I binged a few dozen of the 150-plus films on offer was realising how much Austrian films are rather like Austria (if that’s not too obvious a platitude): mannerly and cultured, if not quite as spectacularly cosmopolitan as cinematic masterpieces from Germany, France, or the UK. They can be a little slow, not necessarily in a bad way: thoughtful, careful, precise. They may take their time breaking out, like a long-distance runner. Not infrequently, some significant latent trauma lurks – and it’s not hard to guess what that might represent, historically – which is eventually somewhat (but perhaps not entirely) confronted, or sublimated.
This year’s Diagonale began the day after the anniversary of Anschluss: 80 years since the Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria, annexing the country. “Hitler’s first victim” was, for decades, how Austria conceived its place in the Third Reich, although the rest of the world has rejected this as a post-hoc rationalisation: Germany’s “invading” troops in 1938 faced enthusiastically cheering crowds waving swastika flags and throwing flowers. Diagonale directors Sebastian Höglinger and Peter Schernhuber pointedly marked this anniversary with a more challenging program, and a more honest historical appraisal, than Austrian audiences might normally expect at the movies.
The opening film, Christian Frosch’s Murer – Anatomie eines Prozesses (Murer – Anatomy of a Trial), explored not just the country’s Nazi legacy but, more precisely, its failure to deal with that past long after the war’s end. Austrian self-examination about the Holocaust pales compared to that of the Germans, who coined the fittingly large and complicated term Vergangenheitsbewältigung to denote their burden of grappling with history. Austrians have some catching up to do, and Murer is a respectable step in that direction.
Winner of the Grand Diagonale Prize for Best Feature, Frosch’s film tells the story of Franz Murer, also known as The Butcher of Vilnius, who was instrumental in liquidating the Lithuanian ghetto and killing its 80,000 Jews. Playing the role with uncanny resemblance to the actual historical figure, Karl Fischer masterfully projects a polite and humble façade that his fellow citizens are happy to take at face value, though it utterly fails to convince the filmmaker (or us viewers) that he has a shred of innocence or remorse.
Deported, arrested and imprisoned after the war for six years in the Soviet Union, Murer was released in 1955 as part of the international treaty establishing Austria’s independence and sent back to his homeland, with the expectation that he would be tried there. But nothing happened until 1963, when Austria finally felt pressured to indict Murer after Adolf Eichmann discussed him at his own 1961 Israeli trial. The Austrian trial, which took place here in Graz, went forward reluctantly. Austrians were inclined to let sleeping dogs lie, reluctant to pull the threads of the past for fear of how much might unravel.
Dozens of victims speak: survivors who saw their fathers or children, their siblings or neighbours brutalised and killed at the ghetto gate where Murer was stationed. Even 20 years after the event these stories are unspeakably horrible to hear, and Murer’s defense attorney Verteidiger Böck, played to the hilt of sleaze by Alexander E. Fennon, comes across as only marginally less depraved than Murer himself as he tries to trip up witnesses after they have given their profound testimonies by challenging their memories: what colour was his uniform? Brown? Light brown? Dark green? If they answer incorrectly, or even hesitate to recall a trivial detail that was so irrelevant to their trauma, the lawyer pounces on them. And many jurors, to their discredit, eagerly regard such “inconsistencies” as evidence that supports Murer. Maybe it was somebody else, they wonder; maybe it didn’t even happen. Who knows? It was war, things were chaotic.
With its focus on the process, the trial, Murer recalls Twelve Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) – and just in case we miss that connection a juror remarks, “we are just like Twelve Angry Men.” There are actually only eight people on this jury, including a couple of women, but the real problem is that really only one or two of them seem at all angry – and even these, in a contorted, typically Austrian way that emanates more from their own guilty discomfort rather than moral clarity. Indeed, the angriest juror gets pressured to bow out, replaced by a much calmer alternate. The final vote is close – even with their heads in the sand, jurors find the evidence hard to ignore – but Murer is narrowly acquitted on every charge; he returned to his farm and lived a presumably contented life until his death in 1994.
“Certain things from the past should be left alone,” says a politician outside the trial. Nobody knew what was really happening. We were just following orders. It was the times. All the most banal rationalisations are trotted out, and the 1960s Austrian public as depicted in Murer uncritically embraces them. If the period’s myopic Nazi apologism comes across as just a bit heavy-handed, I suppose Frosch believes that is the price for ensuring that now, finally, Austrian audiences are able to see the importance of grappling with past moral failures.
As part of his defence strategy, Böck blames famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal for stirring up this fracas. Wiesenthal, assisting the prosecution, tries to keep a low profile because he suspects that the “international Jewish conspiracy” will be invoked to exculpate Murer if his involvement becomes known, which is ultimately exactly how the trial unfolds.
Something disturbingly similar happens again two decades later, recounted in Ruth Beckermann’s fascinating documentary Waldheims Walzer (The Waldheim Waltz). During the final weeks of the 1986 campaign for the Austrian presidency, journalists uncovered copious evidence debunking Kurt Waldheim’s accounts of his “minimal, insignificant military service” as grossly inaccurate. He was in fact a Wehrmacht SA stormtrooper, aide-de-camp to General Alexander Löhr, the Austrian commander executed for war crimes in 1947, and almost certainly complicit in deporting Salonika’s Jews. Though admitting he was stationed very near Salonika, Waldheim claimed that he never knew, never noticed, that 50,000 Jews, one-third of the city’s population, had vanished in 1943.
Internationally, calls for Waldheim’s withdrawal resounded following the revelations; US Congressional hearings determined that Waldheim was guilty of lying about and covering up his past. But for Austrians, a central issue becomes the “meddling” of the World Jewish Congress, one of many groups working to discover what really happened: “a smear campaign from abroad,” Waldheim proclaims. A pro-Waldheim protestor shouts: “Austrians won’t let others tell us who to vote for!” As international outrage grows, the campaign adopted the slogan, “Now, more than ever: Waldheim.” His victory, and his six-year presidency (during which he rarely appeared in public and was shunned internationally), extended Austria’s sense of wounded injustice as they were asked to shoulder blame for the Nazi scourge they claimed had nothing to do with them.
Yes, Jews suffered regrettably during the war, Waldheim concedes as he explains his (and his country’s) version of history on television talk shows during the campaign, but so did Austrians: “there were deaths on both sides.” A campaign worker avows, “We won’t be talked into the collective guilt of all Austrians,” as they retreat yet again into a defensive stance of denial that revealed a persistent strain of anti-Semitism lurking beneath (and not at all very far beneath) the surface.
Two more films broached other facets of the Holocaust, offering what many festivalgoers noted was (for Austrians) an unusually extensive focus. Hitler’s Hollywood (d. Rüdiger Suchsland) was actually a German production, but the Diagonale accepts a few German films – along with many German-Austrian coproductions – as close enough to their own national tradition. (Hitler, for that matter, was himself a German-Austrian coproduction.) Hitler’s Hollywood offered a vast survey of the 1000 films produced during the Third Reich, developed under the aegis of Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry but significantly monitored and even sometimes micromanaged by Hitler himself.
Hitler loved movies. Three days after seizing power in 1933, he went to a film at Berlin’s Ufa Palast about WWI submarine combat: a story of camaraderie, duty and willingness to sacrifice oneself for the larger cause, which would become standard Nazi themes. Recognising Hollywood’s immense cultural and mythic value, Hitler aspired to recreate a comparable cultural powerhouse for Germany. Nazis often imitated Hollywood style reviews, comedies and musicals, depicting a happy country, full of tradition and wholesomeness in which people laugh a great deal. But thanatos is also a pervasive motif: death wishes, fetishisation of death. Mortality was beautiful and kitschy: “Heaven’s gates open!” “I will not die in vain.” “Live on, Fatherland.”
While focusing on mainstream comedies and dramas, Suchsland also covers the era’s most famously depraved works, Leni Reifenstahl’s documentaries and such anti-Semitic propaganda as Jud Süß (Süss the Jew, Veit Harlan, 1940) and Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew, Fritz Hippler, 1940). While there are many other important documentaries about these vile films, I had never seen them melded in, as they are here, with the overall canon of Third Reich cinema, and that context strikes me as an insightful way to understand the continuum of Nazi film.
One more Diagonale film about the Nazi aftermath was Kat Rohrer and Gil Levanon’s Back to the Fatherland, a simple and eloquent documentary in which the filmmakers talk to Israeli grandchildren and grandparents about whether or not the younger generation should go back “home” to Austria and Germany, the region their older relatives had fled. “I don’t believe in Germany,” says an old Tel Aviv resident to his granddaughter in the film’s opening line. “They were bad. And they stayed bad and they will always be bad.” The grandchildren are considering moving to Germany or Austria for a variety of reasons. Some seek better economic and cultural opportunities; some think about returning to places where they feel they have a right to be, where their ancestors lived, and where they feel some connection (however attenuated) with their own personal heritage. And some consider going back to their grandparents’ world because “Israel is not a good place to be right now” as one young man says: “In parts of Israel there really is apartheid. When I’m there, I become a part of these perpetrators.”
While the grandchildren have heard all the worst stories of the Holocaust, still, some of their elders also share fonder memories: “Until Hitler came, we had a happy childhood.”
What would it be like for these young people to go back, the filmmakers ask, and how would their grandparents feel about it? The answer is ambivalent, which registers as honest: there are pros and cons – rational and emotional reasons for going, or for not going. One young man finally decides to move to Salzburg, but says that if he becomes uncomfortable with the political situation there – Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, founded in the 1950s by neo-Nazis, is alarmingly ascendant at the moment – “I’ll get on the first plane out. Hit me once shame on you, hit me twice shame on me. I learned a lot from grandpa.” The lingering fear that what happened before could happen again resonates throughout family conversations. But this fear is mixed with a sense that (perhaps, finally) things change and new possibilities arise as people and cultures move forward into the future. An optimistic spirit of potential reconciliation is symbolised in the fact that one of this film’s directors, Levanon, is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, while the other, Rohrer, is the granddaughter of a Nazi officer.
Toward the end of the documentary, after one man has moved to Austria, his grandfather comes to visit. As they explore places the old man remembers from before the war, his grandson remarks, “He is in some ways more Austrian than I am. He will never move back to Austria. But in some ways he would wish this was his life.” On a trolley riding past the gardens, the grandfather recalls: “Jews were not allowed to go in the park. Jews were not allowed to sit on the benches. Nothing was allowed but one thing: to die. And that’s what they were waiting for. I didn’t give them that pleasure.”
The plight of immigrants today is, to my mind, a cognate topic to Nazism: “Never again,” the world promised after the Holocaust; are we living up to that commitment? I wondered how Austrians appraise Europe’s current human rights struggle that once again involves race, religion, ethnicity, human dignity and ethical miasmas of life and death. Diagonale featured three films on the topic: one, Zerschlag mein herz (Break My Heart, d. Alexandra Makarová), moved me a great deal; one (Gatekeeper, d. Lawrence Tooley) I found objectifying and unconvincing; and one, unfortunately, I was unable to watch because it wasn’t subtitled. I was disappointed because this last film, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Die Bauliche Maßnahme (The Building Measure), won the Festival’s documentary prize, and it seemed highly topical: fences and border controls are being considered at the Brenner mountain pass between Austria and Italy to “protect” Austrians from a renewed influx of refugees. Geyrhalter examines people’s fears on an issue “that will affect not just the region but the whole of Europe. What would this mean for the residents? How does the call for boundaries change people’s thinking?”
Break My Heart, Makarová’s promising debut film, portrays two teenaged immigrants, Marcela and Pepe (played with astonishing delicacy by first-time Roma actors Simona Kovácová and Roman Pokuta), who cling to each other with innocent humanity when they meet in Vienna as trafficking victims. Makarová balances the terror of their situation with the romance they nurture. Their young love is as warm and appealing as a film can possibly make it, and yet it seems inevitable that their fantasy, their determination to escape and create a free life with each other, must fail.
This is the kind of film that needs to be made, needs to be seen. It is a particular story, but also a very universal one, about exploitation and suffering, about real characters with desires, emotions and fears, who confront a world in which they are construed as a statistic, a demographic, an economic or geopolitical problem, anything but what they actually are: people. These are the kind of humans who are globally dehumanised when Brexit embraces a UKIP-brewed xenophobic nationalism; when Trump blathers for his wall to keep out “rapists” and other “bad hombres”; when Fratelli d’Italia, National Front, Alternative for Germany, Golden Dawn and so many other similar movements gain power, alongside Austria’s FPÖ, the Freedom Party, which now holds 24 percent of the seats in parliament’s National Council and whose head, once a neo-Nazi, took office as the country’s Vice Chancellor last year. (Echoes of The Waldheim Waltz recur.) Perhaps I overestimate the power of film, the resonance of human stories, and the ability of humanist empathy as a weapon against prejudice: but in the face of such retrograde political threats that pervade our world today, I walked out of this film thinking that here was the ethical power, the cultural power, that alone can defeat nationalistic chauvinism. The opening night speeches of Festival Directors Schernhuber and Höglinger invoked cinema as a democratic authority: an appealingly presumptuous proposition.
Makarová’s tender balance tips the wrong way; love does not conquer all. But the lovers’ defeat feels at least somewhat redressed by the film’s triumph; their love lasted for some of the film, for some of their lives, even if it did not ultimately survive. There ended up being more value, more happiness in their lives, than the traffickers could have imagined.
At the Q&A session after the film, Pokuta – who comes from a poor village much like the one depicted in Break My Heart – was asked: “Why did you want to participate in the film? What did you think when they asked you to be a part of it?” His response: “I wanted to do something new, something different, to make something out of my life.” The actor, like the character, resonated with the determination and the humanity that may be reconceptualised, as inspired by films like this one, to defuse the “immigration crisis” so we will understand that “immigrants” are just people, and just like all the rest of us (albeit in much more dire straits). The idea of “crisis” generates incendiary rhetoric that could be reimagined, as it is here, to celebrate people striving to reinvent their lives in ways that enrich any society fortunate enough to attract them.
In Gatekeeper, the immigrant-themed film I didn’t especially like, a woman’s car hits a man on a bicycle; when he pleads “no police, no hospital” she carries him home and nurses him back to health herself. She is a wealthy art dealer, and he is a Romanian immigrant; after his bruises heal, she goes Pygmalion on him, trying to heal his spirit, too, by introducing him to Vienna’s cultural eloquence. The filmmaker’s heart is in the right place, I suppose, as the immigrant erupts into monologues about the turmoil of trying to eke out a living amid the inequities of Europe and the traumas of human trafficking. But ultimately, the film rings false: when an inevitable romance erupts, it seems contrived, predictably exoticising “the other” and getting in the way of a more important story that could have been told here. While Break My Heart struck me as vitally authentic – echt! as the Austrians say – Gatekeeper, in comparison, seemed contrived and opportunistic.
Without attempting to do justice to all the great films screened at Diagonale, let me just name-drop a few of the very best: Haneke’s Happy End is an achingly sad story, whose dolour is conveyed with brilliant acting and montage; you won’t be able to look away. “Happy end” is what does not happen here: the family Haneke depicts is very much, as Anna Karenina would have it, unhappy in its own singular way. Ludwig Wüst’s Aufbruch (Departure) features Wüst himself and Claudia Martini, a frequent star in Wüst’s films, as incomparably expressive actors in an incomparably minimalist story about two angry people (we aren’t quite sure why), failures, who meet accidentally and ride together for a while, doing a few small errands, until their journey ends. Wüst out-Becketts Beckett: nothing to be done. This film typifies the lurking, simmering Austrian angst I mentioned at the top of this report. Rarely, very rarely, have I seen such expressive compelling silences on film. Departure strikes me as a “festival film” – its understated dialogue and action might not appeal to more mainstream audiences – but it is not to be missed: full marks for a memorable tableau of quiet desperation.
Barbara Albert’s period piece Licht (Light, also being marketed as Mademoiselle Paradis) is a true story about a blind Viennese 18th-century pianist and composer who was treated (and cured, sort of, but not really) by the famous German physician Franz Mesmer with his odd but sometimes effective “natural energetic transference” therapy. Maria Dragus and Devid Striesow are perfect – dare I say mesmerising? – in this emotional pas de deux.
The costumes and castles are sumptuous, and I offer Light my own personal award for Best Wigs Ever. I also enthusiastically note, as I laud Albert’s delicately incisive and sure-handed directing, that half of the films I saw here were directed by women – nicely done, Diagonale! – and without much fanfare about it. Let us simply hope this is how the film industry will be from now on.
Short films don’t usually get much attention – let’s fix that. The prize-winner was a delightful story about a couple’s break-up during a spa weekend holiday, and it’s one of those relationships where you can’t imagine what ever made them think it would work out in the first place. It features a great title – Entschuldigung, ich suche den Tischtennisraum und meine Freundin (Excuse Me, I’m Looking for the Ping-Pong Room and My Girlfriend, d. Bernhard Wenger) – and a hilarious opening scene: as the woman spews unbridled resentment and hostility at her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, he responds, uncomprehendingly, “but I thought you wanted the sparkling water.” And she yells at him some more; and again, “but I thought . . .” Try to catch this wry gem somewhere.
A confession: critics should make every effort to screen films in theatres alongside festival audiences, but Diagonale offered a Video on Demand stream for the press, and one rainy morning I watched it. I didn’t feel like leaving my room, and there was a stream of “Innovative Cinema” on the program (I can usually take or leave avant-garde cinematic experiments), so I thought I’d stretch out under the covers, watch these films, and then go on to the next one if and when the experiment failed.
I did indeed skip through several quirky films that didn’t change my life, but I came upon one that enthralled me: I watched it all the way through and wished I had seen it on the big screen. Its title is – and fair warning: it’s experimental – ★. Winner of the Diagonale’s Prize for Innovative Cinema, Johann Lurf’s film is a compendium of stars: not movie stars, but actual stars – the skies, the heavens, excerpted in a compilation of clips that are mostly just a few seconds long, sometimes half a minute, from 550 films over 108 years. The clips are arranged chronologically, reflecting advances in cinematographic techniques filming the celestial sphere, although in many ways these star-shots are more similar than different over the century. After all, the sky is still pretty much the same old sky.
The effect is, as they say, oddly compelling; calming, mindful. Lurf includes very few special effects, no spaceships flying through the shots: just pure heavens. He invites the viewer to wonder why films contain so many of these sky-shots, and what they mean. Usually I couldn’t tell which film each clip was from; sometimes they are pretty clearly from sci-fi movies, but not always. Occasionally I could identify the film, or at least the genre, by the score playing in the background or by snatches of dialogue, and I felt that as a film connoisseur I should have been able to guess where these shots came from, but after a while I quit that game and just gave myself over to the mélange, which in Lurf’s vision seems almost like an intentional group project by hundreds of filmmakers to show audiences what the world looks like way above the terrestrial action and locations that usually monopolise our attention.
The credits roll for eight minutes, listing every film excerpted, so people who did try to guess can tally their scores: the first one was Rêve à la lune, (The Moon Lover, Gaston Velle and Ferdinand Zecca, 1905). L’Étoile de mer (The Sea Star, Man Ray, 1928) was there, along with Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945), It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953), Forbidden Planet (Fred Wilcox, 1956) and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015), along with multiple instalments of Star Wars, Star Trek and Superman. Animation was represented too – Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006), WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), Shrek Forever After (Mike Mitchell, 2010) – often looking pretty similar to “real” heavens. As the survey ends with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, (Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, 2017), a caption informs that Lurf has not completed this obsessional project which has already occupied eight years of his life: “To be continued.” Like the universe itself, this stellar film seems destined to continue expanding.
★ was a tribute to the magic of cinematography, which takes us places we couldn’t otherwise go. After having watched Hitler’s Hollywood, about how film was used to propagandise and facilitate tyranny, Lurf’s experiment was a refreshing counterpoint: in films of all periods and genres from around the world, these starscapes provided a common ground – well, I suppose, not ground, but a common realm, someplace we all look up, and integrate into our stories; someplace we all share, though (with very few exceptions) we can’t actually go there, which infuses the heavens with some sanctity, some purity, far as they are from our bumbling lives here on earth.
Diagonale Festival of Austrian Film
13–18 March 2018
Festival website: http://www.diagonale.at/en/