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Austrian Film to 2000

By Robert von Dassanowsky

Without doubt, the three most internationally significant Austrian filmmakers recognized for their stylistic impact at the end of the decade were Michael Haneke, Barbara Albert and experimentalist Peter Tscherkassky. Haneke, whose work has stimulated international cinema discourse on a level not seen since directors of the French New Wave or of New German Cinema, offered early films on the experience of social isolation or on dysfunctional relationships in a style influenced by Robert Bresson. His breakthrough as a filmmaker came with his very first feature, Der siebte Continent (The Seventh Continent) in 1989, which, along with his two later films, Benny's Video (1992) and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) form a trilogy on the social alienation and narcissism nurtured by the age of video and computers. His sparse, even cold directorial style serves to portray what he suggests are Austria's "emotional glaciations." Firmly couched in psychology and the social drama tradition, which he then deconstructs and subverts, Haneke's revelations relate to the pain that lurks beneath the daily life of the bourgeoisie and the horrors it may spawn. His theoretical influence beyond Bresson is clear: the fragmentary, subjective concept of Viennese Impressionism, the distancing effects of Brechtian theater and, finally, the rejection of the false totality of art which Walter Benjamin saw as a strong contribution to the aesthetic/political aim of fascism.

Funny Games (1997)

Haneke also regards "interesting" or "beautiful" films to be a "banality," the result of the advertising aesthetic and a detriment to the precision of image. His films have less explicit violence than an average detective story, Haneke claims, but it is the confrontation with self-deception that makes them seem more violent than other films. Haneke's 1997 Funny Games would prove his point. Although showing no explicit violence, this deconstruction of the traditional thriller in which a couple and their young son arrive at their lakeside vacation home and are subsequently met by two well-mannered but bored young men who slowly menace the family in increasingly violent ways offers no safety net for the audience. Unlike the resolution of dominant cinema, no order is restored, no reason is plumbed, and the viewer is left to contemplate the relationship between the media and escalating social violence. Funny Games has been regarded as film that spearheaded the wider film festival interest in Austrian cinema during the late 1990s, especially after it became the first Austrian feature in competition at Cannes since the 1960s. His most controversial and critically acclaimed films would come with the new century.

Because of the continued problems in funding feature productions, Austria has continued to have an inordinately large share of filmmakers who specialize in the short experimental format. Peter Tscherkassky, who teaches filmmaking at the Academies of Applied Arts in Vienna and Linz, however, has had several decades of presence on the national and international experimental scene, continues to create strictly within his non-commercial genre and yet maintains celebrity status. His career began in the late 1970s, not as an Actionist, but as the Super 8 documentarian of that performance art. Tscherkassky's found cinema has been among the most important influences in recent European experimental filmmaking, and has even returned the concept of manipulating fragmented narratives to American avant gardists, who have forgotten that the method had a brief run in the underground cinema of San Francisco and New York during the early 1960s. Tscherkassky's "Cinemascope Trilogy" takes on dominant cinema modes and audience expectations. The filmmaker goes one step further with Outer Space (1999) by cutting and reprocessing a scene from a Hollywood horror flick until the material itself appears to be pursuing the actor, collapsing in on her, torturing her with a soundtrack gone haywire, and with the very nature of the damaged film itself.

Following Tscherkassky's lead is Martin Arnold, who was a student of psychology and history before turning to cinema in 1988. His experimental found-film shorts such as Pièce Touchée (1989) have attracted wide attention, but it is his manipulation of scenes from a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney film, Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998), which deconstructs the codes of Hollywood into a Freudian subtext that has become a cult classic in Europe and the US. Martin Arnold and Peter Tscherkassky joined other major experimentalists, Gustav Deutsch, Hiebler/Ertl, Thomas Keip, Mara Mattuschka, Lisl Ponger and Friedrich Rücker, in a joint project, Eine Geschichte der Bilder: Acht Found Footage Filme österreich (A History of Images - Eight Found Footage Films from Austria) in 1996.

Nordrand (Northern Skirts, 1999)

Slidin' - Alles Bunt und Wunderbar (Slidin' - Shrill, Bright World) was co-written and directed with former journalist-turned-screenwriter Reinhard Jud and Michael Grimm. The film is an intertwined trilogy focusing on the counterculture of the teenage world, which foreshadowed her breakthrough, Nordrand (City Skirts, 1999), and dealt with a topic that most fascinates Albert, the loss of innocence. Written by Albert with cinematography by Christine Maier, Nordrand focuses on two women (Nina Proll and Edita Malovcic) whose lives attract other young people of different ethnic and sociocultural backgrounds: a Romanian immigrant, a Bosnian refugee and an Austrian who has just completed his military service. Seeking self-realization and emotional support, and concerned with bringing children into this world, they live in a housing project on Vienna's north side and flounder between memories of war in Yugoslavia, temporary jobs, and unwanted pregnancies until they finally drift apart. Albert sets inserts from television news, flashbacks, symbolic montages and spaces of impermanence (bars, discos, underground passages, shopping areas, streets) against long takes dealing with the characters' desire for stability and control, but no harmony is found or projected. Albert populates her films with the ethnicities that make up Vienna and have always been a part of the city and the culture.

That this city is once again a hub for polyglot Central Europe seems quite natural here, but Albert also underscores the xenophobia and the shifts in Austrian national identity that have emerged since the fall of the Bloc system. Yet it is precisely this physical and cultural movement across Central and Eastern Europe that has allowed Vienna to reassert itself as an influential cinema site by the turn of the century.

Robert von Dassanowsky is Professor of German and Film Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and an independent producer. His most recent book, Austrian Cinema: A History (2005), is the first English language study of that nation's film art and industry.


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

GreenCine Recommends...

Despite the global interest in New Austrian Film and the strong talent crossover with Golden Age Hollywood, older Austrian cinema is still a great rarity in English-subtitled DVD or video release. Significant films by major directors as Willi Forst, Geza von Bolvary, Eduard von Borsody, E.W. Emo, Louise Kolm-Fleck and such actors as Attila and Paul Hörbiger, Paula Wessely, Hans Moser, Hans Jaray, Franziska Gaal and the rest of Austria's pre-1960s classic star constellations have never been made available either as dubbed or subtitled videos and are also (inexplicably) largely missing in German-language releases. In 2006, the Film Archive Austria issued a set of 50 films from the 1960s through the 2000s from its holdings on DVD for the Austrian market. The lack of exportability is regrettable given the ardent curiosity of the international market. The English-speaking audience can, however, have a glimpse of Austrian classic era stars Paul Hörbiger, Hedwig Bleibtreu, Anni Rosar and Siegfried Breuer in Carol Reed's quasi-Austrian co-production of The Third Man (1949), which is available on DVD. The list that follows includes films up to 2000.

Austrian Films
with English subtitles
available on DVD
(including the European zone):

Not on DVD (with English subtitles):

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