about the writer
Christoph Huber is film and music critic for the Austrian daily Die Presse, is European editor of Cinema Scope magazine, and writes the program notes for the Austrian Filmmuseum. He has contributed to several books and numerous publications on cinema.
Trouble in the Hothouse
by Christoph Huber
The reputation of Austrian cinema today is unprecedented. After decades of struggling it has established itself as (what in festival and business lingo is called) a "hot spot" of international cinema. Let's illustrate it with a simple example: Imagine you went to the annual Austrian showcase, the national festival "Diagonale," this last March. You would have found, amongst other things, the following on display: firstly, Caché (2005), the prized art-house thriller with which Austrian Michael Haneke has cemented his reputation as one of contemporary cinema's leading auteurs. Undoubtedly also someone would have told you that two more features by other recognized directors are currently being finished and will in due time make a big splash on the world's festival circuit: One by ever-controversial stylist célèbre Ulrich Seidl and one by Barbara Albert, the prolific key figure of the younger generation that emerged in the late 90s, and is centered around "Coop 99," an independent production company founded by Albert and three like-minded contemporaries in order to be able to make films according to their own ideas.
Secondly, you should have seen "Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine" (2005), the equally enthusiastically received last avant-garde short by Peter Tscherkassky, whose reputation as one of the greatest living experimental filmmakers has been cemented already for at least half a decade. Indeed, Austria's strong avant-garde movement has been recognized (justifiably) much longer than its fiction and documentary filmmaking, with groundbreaking pioneers from its first (late '50s-early '60s) wave like Peter Kubelka and Kurt Kren long canonized, inaugurating a tradition of experimental resistance that has never subsided since. The scene contributed other good shorts to the "Diagonale" program, but the two most ambitious discoveries on display could be seen as attempts by outstanding young avant-gardists to close the gap between the short form they're usually confined to and feature filmmaking. In Notes on Film 02, Norbert Pfaffenbichler took his formal investigations to a new extreme: At its core is a short film, almost 10 minutes long and visibly influenced by modernism (Antonioni and other references abound). Yet the material is structurally deconstructed by offering (always alphanumerically annotated) variations on its 26 scenes, opening up to a myriad of possibilities, although in a decidedly brittle manner. The film advances in a rigorous, expanding loop: It keeps restarting, each time adding a new scene, whereas the previous ones are offered in alternate takes, so that after 96 minutes' runtime you've seen the first scene in 26 different versions, but the last (and a "complete" form of the short) only once — or have you? With some changes so tiny as to be nearly unnoticeable (or maybe not there at all), this film can make the most concentrated head spin.
Speaking of circular movements, the other discovery was called Life in Loops: Timo Novotny's self-avowed full-scale "remix" of Michael Glawogger's acclaimed poetic globe-trotting documentary Megacities (1998) conjures a modern-day city symphony mostly from outtakes of the original, throwing in some new material especially shot by Glawogger's reliable director of photography Wolfgang Thaler — a video-age Vertov endeavor, intertwined with the sounds of popular Austrian electro-rockers "Sofa Surfers." Without sacrificing their reflexive roots, both directors have made long films that bespeak a wish to escape the — however proud — avant-garde ghetto, which is hugely appreciated, but only in small circles, and capture some of the wider recognition Austrian cinema seems to command automatically these days.
And nothing has commanded as much attention in Austrian cinema last year as the documentaries: Your third point of interest at the festival might have been a selection of those, spearheaded by Hubert Sauper's Oscar-nominated vicious-globalization-cycle success Darwin's Nightmare (2004), Glawogger's grand portrait of what's left of worldwide manual hard labor, the multiple international prize-winner Workingman's Death (2005) and another awarded achievement by a central figure, Nikolaus Geyrhalter's factual-yet-surreal European-food-industry symphony Our Daily Bread (2005), a multi-layered, quasi-wordless work of astonishing visual and rhythmic precision. Interestingly enough, Erwin Wagenhofer's similarly-themed but totally TV-ish (both in aesthetics and straightforward exposé-style) We Feed the World (2005) had just become Austria's most successful documentary of all time, drawing 190,000 people into cinemas, a success probably surpassed only by Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).
Up to here this may give the impression that Austrian cinema is indeed in a blessed state, but on closer inspection this turns out to be a superficial judgment. The easy explanation for the success of Wagenhofer's film, actually very much along the lines of Moore's justifications, is a good starting point for sorting out the troubles that not-so-secretly plague the nation's industry: As Austria's state-sponsored TV station ORF, in the name of ostensibly all-powerful ratings, moves closer and closer to the inane entertainments of private competitors, "educational" programs similar to Wagenhofer's work get increasingly rarer, despite their obvious interest to the people. (And one will have to see whether Geyrhalter's truly challenging — especially in its denial of finger-pointing — and much more confrontational work, just released in cinemas, can do only remotely as well as We Feed the World). Take for instance another "Diagonale" discovery, this time in the documentary section, Harald Friedl's beautiful study of disappearing old-fashioned shops in Vienna, Aus der Zeit (2006): Per ORF scheduling dogma, it would at best be granted a late-night-slot, if any at all. Even a commercially successful, just idiosyncratically outré fiction feature like Glawogger's Nacktschnecken (2004) was relegated to a week-day TV premiere at 1 a.m.! What's worse, ORF remains the most important co-production source for money, yet yields easily not just to commercial, but also political pressure: Thomas Korschil's and Eva Simmler's doc Artikel 7 (2005), a dry but worthy account of the breaches of law Austria has committed for decades in its treatment of Carinthia's Slovene minority, was suddenly kicked off the TV schedule by its co-producer ORF, allegedly because of "lack of objectivity." Yet it's just righting wrongs that state television itself has been helpful in sustaining. And I'm not holding my breath that the even more infuriating Operation Spring (2005) by Tristan Sindelgruber and Angelika Schuster, a precise recounting of the outrageous abuse of justice surrounding Austria's first official bugging operation, will show up anytime soon.
Ironically enough, it was Austria's conservative government, not only — as the above example demonstrates — exercising control of TV policy, but also of the still woefully under-budgeted state funding, that enabled the national film scene's last moment of triumph: The adversary was Franz Morak, state secretary for culture, and as pretty much any of his statements proves, a hopelessly clueless (and clearly ill-advised) person where questions of Austrian cinema are concerned — that he is prone to repeatedly claim otherwise makes his ignorance only worse. After the 2003 edition he tried to take over "Diagonale," whose prolonged political resistance against the conservative powers ever since their victory in 2000 had visibly annoyed him. But his ill-thought-out new scheme was thwarted by the film people themselves, who for once forgot about their Austrian penchant for internal quarrels, and collectively refused to cooperate: Instead they successfully programmed a small counter-festival, while Morak had to cancel his. Typically, the shame (and waste of taxpayer's money) was just swept under the rug, as Morak waited out silently — after all, the film people had to come back to him for funding. Meanwhile, a dubious state of truce with the "Diagonale" was achieved: As opposed to the counter-festival of 2004 it now is officially state-(co-)sponsored again, its direction adhering to a path of peaceful coexistence.
Yet peaceful coexistence has never worked for long in Austria's film scene: Let's return to this year's "Diagonale" one last time, to finalize the balance. Already in advance rumors circulated about a split in Austria's Association of Film Producers (AAFP). On the one hand there are long-established bigger production companies, spearheaded by president Helmut Grasser of Allegro Film, which typically produce commercial entertainments, epitomized by the record attendance of over 600,000 for Hinterholz 8 (1998), a vehicle for popular stage comedian Roland Düringer — as it happens, the ensuing wave of crude comedies tailored for similar stars are among the only films ORF accepts for a prime-time slot these days; the other are even blander TV films and series that represent the second pillar for Allegro's production. To be fair, it should be pointed out that the big companies also produce more or less challenging endeavors — indeed We Feed the World unexpectedly was Allegro's biggest money spinner last year. Yet, unfazed by the facts, Grasser had presented an internal paper for the reformation of funding, since many smaller companies had been established in recent years, proportionally reducing the amount dished out for individual companies: According to him, it should be audience draws like Allegro's TV and comedy films that should get a guaranteed lion's share of the money. Of course, the smaller companies in AAFP protested strongly — after all, Geyrhalter and Seidl had founded their eponymous small firms to be able to put forth their vision without interference, just like "Coop 99" or "Amour fou," another remarkable young company specializing in "festival films." Haneke, who clearly is a precursor to this approach, has repeatedly pointed out that he can make his demanding films on a bigger scale only thanks to French-majority co-productions.
A quick glance at the "Diagonale" program showed to those in the know that this rift could not be overcome by the festival's non-interference strategy: Missing were new works from both camps, relatively big like Slumming (2006), Glawogger's remarkable new episode drama, freshly premiered in Berlin competition, and relatively small like respected documentarian's Ruth Beckermann's Zorro's Bar Mitzva (2006), which instead was unveiled in Paris. Furthermore, the centrally scheduled roundtable discussions on the state of Austrian cinema quickly degraded into grudge-matches along old lines, in the case of the producers fueled by the fact that their internal struggle had leaked outside to the media. With immediate external threats gone, Austria's film scene quickly returned to self-laceration. Shortly after the festival, a general assembly of the AAFP ended with Grasser's resignation as president, and he and all members of the big companies withdrew from the organization. The remaining small producers issued a statement for a "diverse" national cinema committed to adventurous and uncommercial filmmaking and announced a new general assembly. At the point of writing, the issue remains unresolved.
In its specifics, that is: Because what is at stake in general has been obvious for years. Austria is too small for a self-sufficient industry; the domestic product's share of sold cinema tickets rates around a miniscule 2%. Indeed, Austria's most successful film is not Hinterholz 8, but a film that had only one sixth of its viewers (almost 100,000) at home: But with its worldwide sales, Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001) remains unsurpassed. Rightly one can only conclude, that the direction of Austrian filmmaking must go towards "diversity" and leaving an imprint on the international scene, not by aping Hollywood success without its structures (and advertising budgets), but via personal vision. Yet here another, and, in a smaller way, just as confining template has kicked in, overlooked in the enthusiasm first of international success in the wake of Haneke's and Seidl's major festival triumphs plus the younger generation's breakthrough, then of the sudden solidarity while fighting for the national film fest committed to the filmmakers.
But by now, as with every "hot" nation in the festival circuit, certain dominating themes and aesthetics of Austrian cinema have become a successful cliché not always overcome by authorial vision: Depression and alienation are the dominating tone, usually leading to significant outbursts of violence and/or unhappy sex. The social pessimism is presented in a style that gets a pass as "realism," even though it is often quite stylized, and — just compare Haneke and Seidl for instance — in quite different ways. Still, these influences led to a superficial similarity and fit international expectations (just as, say, in the last decade Iranian, or Taiwanese, or Korean films usually had and still have to adhere to certain formulas to strike big internationally as representation of their "hot spot" country). Case in point: Ruth Mader's debut Struggle (2003), produced by Amour Fou, whose radically reduced form suggests nothing so much as a parodistic condensation of these tendencies, had one of the most successful festival lives of any Austrian film in recent years. And although I would never begrudge the special mention to "Coop 99" for its three fiction films last year given out at this year's "Diagonale" awards (the category was won, boringly but unassailably, by Caché) — their ambition deserves due recognition — unfortunately together this trio of films exemplifies the struggle now being clearly felt by Austria's filmmakers: Two, both international coproductions, bring the same didacticism that often mars the realist tendencies of the "Coop 99" house style to foreign territories — Benjamin Heisenberg's interesting but ultimately overdetermined Munich terrorism parable Schläfer (2005) and Jasmina Žbaniæ's postwar Sarajevo drama Grbavica (2006), just Golden-Bear-prized for its weighty subject, but certainly not for its aesthetic success — stylistically, it barely qualifies as a (however admirably) socially committed TV-drama-of-the-week. The third film, Antonin Svoboda's You Bet Your Life (2005), represents an attempt to break free from the mold, but in doing so, cancels itself out — as did Coop's Jessica Hausner previously with a comparable, if somewhat genre-enhanced endeavor, Hotel (2004).
In the context of this crisis of Austria's fictional self-representation, what to make of the fact that many of the documentaries — Sauper, Geyrhalter, Glawogger, Wagenhofer all qualify — turn away from the homeland (ironically, often to just discover de- and oppression in the elsewhere as well). Or that the avant-garde, for all its magisterial achievements, resides at an ivory-tower-like remove? (Indeed, Tscherkassky, maybe the greatest master of them all, recedes to the darkroom for his meticulous productions — a symbolic image if there ever was one.) As the drawbacks of Austria's finally acquired "hot" status visibly sink in, one can only hope that the concerned will be quick-witted enough to realize that now is the moment to remain cool and think.
Originally published in Ekran.