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Austrian Film to 2000

By Robert von Dassanowsky

Towards New Visions: 1970s - 1990s

The 1970s marked a return of narrative films, although these were small, local productions rarely screened in the remaining cinemas or exported. Narratives that would influence the direction of early New Austrian Film are found in Toronto-born director John Cook's Langsamer Sommer (Slow Summer, 1976) and his breakthrough work, Schwitzkasten (Sweat Box, 1978), a realistic examination of the life of the working class. Cook's films followed a Godard-like exploration of the urban neurosis and claustrophobia born of the demand for order and conformity in Austria's conservative society.

One of the leading figures of New German Cinema in the 1970s, Wim Wenders, began his mainstream career with the Austrian production of Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1971) which was co-scripted by Austrian author Peter Handke. Austrian-born international actor Maximilian Schell moved behind the camera in what became one of the first examples of this new phase in Austrian filmmaking that attained a measure of global attention. His Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (Tales from the Vienna Woods, 1979) with Birgit Doll, Hanno Pöschl and Helmut Qualtinger was based on the 1930 ödön von Horvath play and scripted by Christopher Hampton. Although the title suggests a Viennese Film or an imperial epic named after the Johann Strauss Jr. waltz, Schell's film examines the tattered social fabric of interwar Austria, which, as a small republic, is beset by political polarization and economic crisis, and locates its identity in imperial nostalgia or in a looming Nazism. The bleakness and the brutality of relationships, particularly the objectification and abuse of women makes Schell's film drama a universal statement on outmoded gender roles and relationships and on the roots of fascism in the reactionary values of the financially imperiled lower middle class. Another examination of the working class milieu was Wilhelm Pellert's Jesus von Ottakring (Jesus of the Ottakring District, 1976). This modern passion play, which received critical acclaim in Austria, was also viewed by audiences as a welcome commercial direction for the new artistic narrative style.

Axel Corti's Der Fall Jägerstätter (The Case of Jägerstätter, 1972), which was written by Hellmut Andics, explores the plight of Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to be drafted in the army of the Third Reich. Confronted with various representatives of the National Socialist state, the church, family and friends, he concludes that a Christian cannot be a National Socialist and he is imprisoned for his crime. Corti concludes the film by positing the choice of conscience versus duty in several contemporary interviews. The film was a rare first attempt at exploring Austria in the Reich, and questioned the still rather undisputed importance of order above individualism in post-1960s Austrian society. Corti followed this groundbreaking film with Totstellen (Dead Places) in 1975, with the participation of Michael Sharang and Xaver Schwarzenberger. The realistic look at the economic and social constraints of a farmer's son as he attempts to make a life for his girlfriend and their unborn child, attacked the notion of an idyllic agrarian world found in the Heimatfilm.

Director Peter Patzak aimed to establish a politically critical direction in the roots of New Austrian Film and was first popularly known as the creator of a hit detective television series, Kottan ermittelt (Kottan Investigates, 1976 - 1984), which often satirized sociopolitical and cultural clichés. His 1979 Kassbach: Ein Portrait (Kassbach: A Portrait), written by the director with Helmut Zenker garnered him critical attention. Here, actor Walter Kohut portrays Karl Kassbach, a petty bourgeois man who feels threatened by foreigners and deals with the issue in a violent manner. Kassbach's creation of an organization for "Peace, Security and Order" underscores what the director sees as the xenophobia of an urban underclass, victimized by consumerism and idealized cultural nostalgia.

Valie Export, who had not been an Actionist but had created her own experimental performance art style in the 1960s, emerged as one of the leaders of feminist filmmaking with a substantial mainstream following through her reinvention of the sci-fi/body snatching film as a metaphor for female oppression, Unsichtbare Gegner (Invisible Adversaries, 1978), and with the psychological/political thriller on a female reporter's abusive relationships with two men, one a possible illegal arms dealer in Die Praxis der Liebe (The Practice of Love, 1984).

Post-1970s filmmakers succeeded in attracting a younger generation whose parents had abandoned cinema during the decline of commercial product and in the period of marginalized experimentation. Unlike the directors of the New German Cinema's Autorenfilm during the 1970s and 80s, who saw themselves in the tradition of the French cinema d'auteurs in their all-controlling combination of writer, director and producer, Austrian multitasking, while also a rejection of commercial cinema conventions, was driven by poverty and necessity. Austria's early film revival was mostly heralded by word-of-mouth and the perseverance of its creators. A growing interest in the new narrative style, in critical subject matter, and in local production indicated the path for Austrian filmmakers into the resurgence of national and international interest in the national product. The "new wave," when it finally arrived was not wholly revolutionary, but based in the critical revisioning of traditional Austrian genres: non-nostalgic period pieces, politicized Heimatfilm and feminist social drama.

With ORF becoming a major film financing source, and a national subsidy finally announced in 1980, more narrative films found limited commercial or television screenings. These were revisions of traditional Austrian genres, such as the Heimatfilm, which now became neorealistic in Xaver Schwarzenberger's television series Alpensaga (Alpine Saga, 1976 - 1980), explored political corruption in Christian Berger's Raffl (, 1984) and the Nazi past in Wolfram Paulus's Heidenlöcher (, 1985).

Der Bockerer (1981)

Veteran Franz Antel revitalized his career with a popular tragicomic saga of four films dealing with Austria's place in Central Europe as seen through the eyes of a Viennese butcher (Karl Merkatz) and his family, beginning with the Anschluss in Der Bockerer (The Stubborn Mule, 1981), which proved that the Nazi period in Austria was now approachable in commercial film. Antel had cinematically anticipated the long delayed national discourse on Austria's role in Nazism following the 1986 presidential election of former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. Although eventually found innocent of any direct involvement with war crimes, biographical omission regarding his service record in the Wehrmacht was a lingering taint, and he remained a pariah on the international political stage. What has become known as the "Waldheim Era" did not inspire new historical drama in Austrian film. Instead, the examination of the past through fascist metaphors found in the petit-bourgeoisie and the working class experience of contemporary Austria dominated the films of the 1980s and 90s.

The second work of the new decade that moved the Austrian film into some mainstream success with national audiences was Der Schüler Gerber (The Student Gerber, 1980), directed by Wolfgang Glück, from a novel by Austrian author Friedrich Torberg. Xaver Schwarzenberger, who was to launch his directorial career in 1983, served as Gerber's cinematographer and the period film featured the most widely known New Austrian Film actor of the 1990s, Gabriel Barylli, as a graduating student who is faced with unhappy love, a dying father and the sadistic tendencies of his mathematics professor. Gerber's story ends on a bleakly ironic note, as he despairingly commits suicide to escape certain failure, unaware that he has passed his exit examination. Although the original novel is a criticism of the lingering academic traditions of the Old Order in the First Republic, the film treatment shifts the parable to an examination of the seeds of fascism. Gerber represents the return to "traditional" quality (linear narrative, studio-type production values) and topic (war, romance, family melodrama) in Austrian filmmaking that, along with such later commercial successes as Schwarzenberger's Donauwalzer (Danube Waltz, 1984), are influenced by the mainstream family viewing style of ORF's television films. The other style, influenced by John Cook's Schwitzkasten, Peter Patzak's Kassbach (1979) and the films of Franz Novotny, rejects the influence of television and finds inspiration for its fractured narrative in experimentalism, neorealism and Actionist documentary. By the 1990s, films by Valie Export, Paulus Manker, Wolfgang Murnberger, Christian Berger, Wolfram Paulus and Michael Haneke would display a more mainstreamed version of this avant-gardism.

Glück's second Torberg feature adaptation, 38: Auch das war Wien (38: Vienna Before the Fall, 1987), became the most successful work of his career and scored a triumph for the early phase of New Austrian Film. Set in the year of the Anschluss, the film takes on Austrofascism and Nazism as seen through the experiences of a popular actress (Sunnyi Melles) and her fiance, a Jewish journalist (Tobias Engel). The doomed relationship, which is smothered by the panicked atmosphere in Austria during the weeks prior to Hitler's entry, is a valiant attempt at broaching a difficult subject in an accessible cinematic manner, despite some Austrian critics labeling it as "anti-fascist kitsch." But national and international audience reception was positive and the film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar of 1987 and received the Austrian Film Prize.

One of contemporary Austria's most audience pleasing directors, Niki List, began his cinematic reign in 1982 with his first feature, Malaria (1982), a social satire which explored the customers of the fictional but trendy Viennese "Café Malaria." His re-vision of the traditional Austrian society comedy earned wide critical and popular appreciation and the work received both the German Max Ophüls Prize in 1983 and the Austrian Film Prize in 1984. The continued lack of a professional atmosphere in Austrian film financing however, was evident with this film, as the difficult process of launching it was ultimately capped by press accusations regarding mismanagement and debt, although the film played well in Austria and abroad. Despite mixed critical reaction, his 1986 Müllers Büro (Mueller's Office) was such a commercial draw that its actors, Christian Schmidt, Andreas Vitasek and Barbara Rudnik, have been associated with their roles ever since. The film established an all-time Second Republic box-office record to that date. This blend of film noir, musical comedy, and parody deals with a seedy detective and his best friend who search for a missing man at the behest of a mysterious woman. The job places them into a maze of increasingly nihilistic intrigues. Although played for camp, the audiences seemed to find List's send up of the detective and musical genres a refreshing change from the more serious works of New Austrian Film. Indeed, the work is almost completely constructed with references to Hollywood Golden Age film and the West German and Austrian pop-musicals of the 1950s and 60s.

Axel Corti's career as promising filmmaker was cut short by early death. The Paris-born director originally worked in Austrian radio and theater before moving to television in the 1960s. Corti favored period pieces and literary adaptations, and was influenced by Willi Forst's Viennese Film style and the social melodramas of the 1930s. His trilogy, Wohin und Zurück (Where To and Back, 1982 - 85) for ORF, which follows a Jewish emigrant who escapes the Anschluss, finds an incongruent life in New York, and returns to Austria in 1945 as a US soldier, brought Corti brief global acclaim. His notability also managed to put Austria back into popular international cinematic discourse for a short time, as different segments of Wohin und Zurück were screened in European theaters and on various American public television network affiliates. All three films are masterworks of character study and tragicomedy, dealing with recent historical themes usually avoided by the Austrian popular media. The final entry in the trilogy, Welcome in Vienna (1986), written by Georg Stefan Troller from his own experiences, garnered the greatest attention as a theatrical release. Concluding the saga of Freddy Wolff, as portrayed by Gabriel Barylli, Corti offers a mosaic of impressions and occurrences, which evoke a sense of both detachment and belonging as Wolff deals with the American lack of comprehension regarding his plight and Austria's socioculture. Evoking aspects of the Austrian identity crisis in the 20th century, the film also presents a pessimistic commentary on the formation of the early Second Republic and its avoidance of the Nazi past.

By the 1990s, the notion of a multicultural Austrian cinema became a much wider concept than Central European identity. One of the significant Austrian filmmakers of the final decade of the 20th century is Teheran-born Houchang Allahyari, an Iranian who studied psychiatry and neurology in Austria for many years until he turned, self-taught, to a filmmaking that focuses on the experiences of the social outsider. I Love Vienna (1991) features an Iranian cast and the final screen appearance of Austria's 1960's sex symbol, Marisa Mell. In an unusually optimistic film for the director, it looks at the xenophobia brought on by increased Eastern European and Middle Eastern emigration during the 1990s as seen through the eyes of an Iranian teacher of German who, fearing the political situation in Iran, attempts to move his family to Vienna. Höhenangst (Fear of Heights) of 1994, includes veteran Hollywood character actor Leon Askin, who returned to Austria in the 1990s, in the story of one man's urban alienation and the subsequent repression in a village community were he flees for safety and freedom. Geboren in Absurdistan (Born in Absurdistan, 1999) returned Allahyari to culture clashes in a film about the accidental mix-up of an Austrian and Turkish baby in a Vienna hospital and the subsequent journey of the Austrian parents to a small Turkish town to correct the error. Racism is explored from an almost taboo emotional aspect in this anxiety-ridden dramedy.

The New Heimatfilm, with its interest in critical and alternative views of rural and mountain life, revitalized a genre that had died of formulaic and broad comedy exhaustion in the 1960s. It rejects the idyllic notions of country life and subverted clichés by locating problems of Austrian society and recent history in the milieu. Stefan Ruzowitzky's Die Siebtelbauern (The Inheritors, aka The One-Seventh Farmers, 1998) is a perfect case in point. Setting the action against a backdrop of the impoverishment, political instability and national identity trauma of the Austrian First Republic, Ruzowitzky neo-realistically underscores the difficult life of the workers who inherit a farm to the chagrin of and against the unyielding traditions of the landed farmers who behave with aristocratic privilege and capitalist manipulation to maintain their control.

Another break-out director of the last decade of the 20th century is Michael Glawogger, whose first feature, Die Ameisenstrasse (Street of Ants, 1995), borrows from two genres, the Austrian folk play and the social drama, but surrealistically transforms the elements of both into a claustrophobic Kafkaesque tale about the strange inhabitants of a Viennese apartment house. The overriding obsession of the characters is their relationship to time and death, which seem to turn the inhabitants inward, away from the threat of an outside interruption of their orderly existence, even to the point of avoiding their neighbors. The renovation of the apartment house into condominiums reduces them to paralysis, while the new owners scurry about like the ants of the title. Perhaps meant as a parodic statement on the European Union which Austria joined that year, the film also suggests an allegory on the trauma of the Waldheim Era: like the building, lingering guilt is "covered over," while the inhabitants are unable to deal with the past or the future in the hollowness of their environment. Glawogger followed this with a 1998 documentary on the survival of members of the underclass in Bombay, Mexico City, Moscow and New York in Megacities.

Glawogger's earlier film partner, Ulrich Seidl, who served as casting director on Ameisenstrasse, became noted for his quirky documentaries beginning with Good News (1990), which observes the lives of the foreign newspaper sellers in Vienna, and Tierische Liebe (Animal Love, 1995), which focuses on the often bizarre relationships lonely or anti-social Austrians have with their pets. Rejected for television showing by ORF and by some cinemas as well, the provocative film created a sensation at European festival screenings.

Stockholm-born Harald Sicheritz, who came from television, is an exponent of the successful transfer of cabaret theater to feature film with his first hit, Muttertag (Mother's Day, 1993). Borrowing from the social drama's focus on the problems of the family unit as symbol for sociopolitical discord, the film also returns to the Austrian screwball comedy with its rapid-fire wisecracking dialogue and the disintegration of order as the Neugebauer family's plans for a Mother's Day celebration go terribly awry. It was one of the bona fide box office successes of 1993/94, along with Paul Harather's Indien (India, 1993), a black comedy, odd-couple film featuring the scriptwriters Josef Hader and Alfred Dorfer as health inspectors who detest each other but are forced to travel together across Austria and eventually develop a friendship which strengthens them even through tragedy. Sicheritz returned to the family under duress theme in Hinterholz 8 (1998), about a Viennese couple and their difficult attempt to save money in order to escape their cramped apartment for a rundown farmhouse.

Postwar Film Through the 1960s <<< Previous | Next >>> 1970s - 1990s (Part Two) and Recommendations


Beginnings and the Silent Era
The Viennese Film and the Emigrantenfilm
The Anschluss
Postwar Film Through the 1960s
Towards New Visions: 1970s - 1990s (Part One)
1970s - 1990s (Part Two) and Recommendations

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