Diagonale: Festival of Austrian Film has taken place annually since 1998 in Graz (pron. "Grats," pop. 325,000), Austria's second city, capital of the wealthy Styria province, and best known internationally as the home town of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over its six days (this year March 13-18) the event provides a handy snapshot of current Austrian film production, with a couple of retrospective strands included for context—rendered tantalizingly inaccessible to most international visitors by the lack of English subtitles.
The newer films are divided into fiction, documentary, short fiction, short documentary and what the festival labels "Innovative Kino" (IK). A sidebar dedicated to experimental and animated work would in most festivals of this type be a decidedly marginal affair—but, given the remarkable history of Austrian avant-garde cinema over the last half-century (and more; see Adrian Martin's essay "I Dream Of Austria"), at Graz it's a big deal indeed. The standard is reliably high; I first visited Diagonale in 2016 and two of the IK shorts ended up in my end-of-year top five ballot for Sight & Sound (Meinhard Rauchensteiner's Herbst and Arthur Summereder's The French Road, Detroit MI).
This year 35 Kurzfilme and one feature competed for the section's €6,000 top prize—won by that sole feature-length effort, shorts wizard Johann Lurf's debut long-runner entitled ★, in which he clinically excerpts and arranges hundreds of short film-clips ranging from the earliest silents to current releases, all of them featuring the night sky and the stars therein. It's an amusingly ludic and stimulatingly oblique (if occasionally frustrating) engagement with cinema history: Lurf carefully snips out any visual incursion by any part of the human body, thus often rendering the soundtrack stutteringly staccato. The film will be covered at greater length on the Notebook soon, and in any case my main focus here is on the shorts. 28 of them (running up to 43 minutes apiece, but mostly much briefer) were bundled together into four programs running more than an hour each—testament to the sheer profusion of avant-garde material (not all of it worthwhile, needless to say) annually produced in a country whose population—nine million—is less than that of New Jersey.
It helps, of course, that adventurous filmmakers operating on the non-commercial margins have for decades received financial support from regional funders and even directly from the state. Of 2018's 36 IK competitors, 11 (including ★) were backed in part by the Federal Chancellor's Office (Bundeskanzleramt, or BKA) via its Innovative Film Fund. But there's now a dark cloud hanging low overhead. In the period between the 2017 Diagonale and this year's renewal, a federal election took place which resulted in a coalition government between the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) headed by Sebastian Kurz—in December the 31-year-old was sworn in as the world's youngest elected head of state—and the hardline-nationalist FPÖ (Austrian Freedom [sic] Party.)
Unsurprisingly, this firmly right-wing government is not viewed in a favorable light by Austria's edgier artistic communities—and the feeling is mutual. Many organizations have found their applications for funding to have become lodged in limbo, and the general feeling is that the BKA's more audacious activities—such as Innovative Film—are under particular threat. The immediate future is uncertain, even gloomy—but Austria's avant-garde cinematic traditions, which date back to the 1950s and seminal names like Peter Kubelka and Kurt Kren, are sufficiently well-established to survive any philistine assault. A crucial element in whatever transpires will be distribution hub sixpackfilm, a private Vienna-based collective which promotes radical film-making at home and (especially) abroad: at the time of the festival no fewer than 16 films in the Innovative section (including ★) were being handled by sixpackfilm.
What follows is an entirely subjective run-down of my top ten favorite shorts from the IK competition. I must also give a "special mention" to a non-experimental picture from the Documentary Shorts program which I happen to catch because it played in an hour-long double-bill with an IK title (At the Horizon). Demontage by Michael Palm is an offshoot of the director's 2016 documentary feature Cinema Futures, and mainly consists of two Polish arbeiters laboriously dismantling a filtration system at a freshly-shuttered Vienna film-development facility in late 2015. An observational, hand-held fly-on-the-wall chronicle of men at work, disarming in its directness and unpretentious simplicity, it was screened with only German subtitles (for the Polish-language dialogue) but eloquently spoke the universal language of hard graft.
10. 5K HD — Gimme (Serafin Spitzer, Austria)
Reportedly the very first directorial outing by cinematographer Spitzer (b. 1987; shot a documentary standout at Diagonale '18, Ruth Kaaserer's Gwendolyn), this exhilarating and hyper-kinetic pop-video showcases the lithe skills of masked and bodysuited Kathya Toussaint, a "professional indoor skydiver" seen acrobatically gyrating in the confines of an anti-gravity wind-machine flotation chamber and then vaulting across the vertigo-inducing vastness of the heavens. "The result is amazing," enthused Skydive Mag, who should know about such things. And here it is to watch!
9. STA! (Pêdra Costa, Austria)
Another debut, this time from Brazilian performance-artist/anthropologist Costa (b. 1978)—not to be confused with Pedro Costa nor Petra (Olmo and the Seagull) Costa—whose camera mingles with a gaggle of giggling, preening, hedonistic youths as they strut and sashay their way through a summery Viennese night. Percussive beats; smudgy sensuality; a raw, elliptical dispatch from the hot frontiers of sexual display.
8. more than everything (Rainer Kohlberger, Germany)
A 3D spectacle in five mainly monochrome sections, the first of which is a blobby-blurry-liquidy delight that somehow makes the viewer feel like their eyeballs are being tenderly caressed. I didn't get as much out of the later segments (which veer more into barcode/zebra-stripe territory), but I'm told by a reliable pal that a second viewing ("when you know how to watch it") is considerably more rewarding,
7. Carusel (Patrick Topitschnig, Austria)
I'd never heard of Topitschnig (b. 1980), but I am familiar with the space he explores in this shadowy, tenebrous series of notes from underground: Salina Turda, a Romanian salt-mine whose present form dates back to the 19th century (I once played table-tennis there with John Huston's daughter, but that's another story). Spooky grandeur abounds: vast black walls with wavy spectral lines; bare white lighting illuminating nightmarish, deserted theme-park rides— including, briefly, the carousel of the enigmatic title. The soundtrack deepens the dread: echoing voices of adults and children, the latter's laughter distorted by echoes into hellish cries amid the cracks of unseen thunder, the dull clanking of invisible machinery. J.G. Ballard was (of course) right: "Earth is the alien planet."
6. Dachszenen (Anja Krautgasser, Austria)
One of the more narrative-inflected of the IK titles, Krautgasser's poetic tribute to the skyline of Vienna takes place almost entirely on the rooftops of high-rise apartment buildings—or maybe it's just the roof of a single structure. It teasingly offers discrete, chapter-divided micro-glimpses into the personalities of four different women as they survey the city below. The camera sees all: crows flock at dusk, a bunch of youths are somehow up to no good, giant cranes stand mute sentinel. The city abides.
5. 29 Punkt Programme (Dietmar Brehm, Austria)
Linz dude Brehm (b. 1947) is the indefatigable, shadowy veteran of the country's avant-garde, now in his eighth decade and still churning out multiple shorts every year. Occasionally (2013's Sun Stop, a personal favorite) he hits a bullseye; this one, an abstract game of perception, casts 29 black dots—in various configurations—onto a frenetically pulsating green/red background as the sound of trickling water steadily intensifies on the soundtrack. Persistence of vision crucial: retinal tricks are the key to the puzzle. A film that teaches you how to watch it, and gives you just enough time to do so.
4. At the Horizon (Manuel Knapp and Takashi Makino, Austria/Japan)
Productive collaboration between an Austrian up-and-comer and one of the major names of the international avant-garde (fresh from 2017's glorious On Generation and Corruption) plays like a disarmingly straight melding of their trademark modes: Knapp's geometrical white lines in frenzied 2D-as-3D agitation (nightmares in the "brain" of a damaged computer); Makino's pulsating fields of organic globulousness. A surgingly ominous electronic soundtrack holds it all together across the thirty intimately epic minutes, howling sonoclasms that endow proceeding with the grandeur of cosmic science-fiction. To infinity and beyond!
3. IMPERIAL VALLEY (cultivated run-off) (Lukas Marxt, Austria)
Snapping at the heels of Lurf (b. 1982) and Siegfried A Fruhauf—both of whom have become established names on the avant-garde circuit in the past decade—is late-starting globetrotter Lukas Marxt (b. 1983), who had his big breakthrough with 2014's Reign of Silence (shot in Norway), confirmed that promise with 2015's Black Rain White Scars (Hong Kong) and, ditching his tripod, now elbows his way into James Benning country (California farmland) with this Berlinale-premiered 23-shot wonder made using a drone-mounted camera. Industrialized rural landscapes blur into glorious abstraction as—accompanied by the musical soundscapes of Jung An Tagen—we merrily skip at speed over fields and cattle-stations, the excrescences of big agriculture playfully subverted into the realms of geometric art. Sinister patterns of hydrography in days of drought; so much water, so close to home.
2. Phantom Ride Phantom (Siegfried A. Fruhauf, Austria)
Graz was my third view of the latest eye-popper from Fruhauf, perhaps the most plausible heir to the crown of Austria's current #1 avant-garde maestro Peter Tscherkassky. Like Tscherkassky, Fruhauf (b. 1976) likes to take existing visual materials—usually stills—and noisily distort them to the edge of dissolution...and then keep going...and going... Here (reportedly "visually inspired by Ken Jacobs’ found-footage film The Georgetown Loop  that is itself based on a "phantom ride" scene from 1903") a series of images showing train tracks in various states of decay becomes a railway-movie like no other; Jürgen Gruber's soundtrack blending rail-clackings, bells and horns into a wide-gauge cacophonic symphony. Motion and stasis collide in a sensory assault of carefully controlled chaos which demands surrender to its ecstatic flow. Full of fearful, unstable symmetries, it's a brutal elegy to bygone technology, riding those glorious jagged edges where digital bleeds back into analogue. All aboard!
1. paris (Billy Roisz, Austria)
Strobing horizontal/vertical colors (electric blues and infra reds) and savage black-void slashes accompany a raucous blast of hardcore NOISE from Oslo combo 'MoE', illustrating track three from their 2016 album Examining the Eye of a Horse. (mxdwn.com: "Experimental methods... help MoE to establish a sound that is decisively singular. Their music juxtaposes the brutality of punk rock–if not metal–with the more contemplative subtleties of minimalist music. While certain tracks [e.g. “Paris”] offer a furious blend of cacophonous riffs, frenzied solos and breakneck rhythms, Examination does also contain moments of subtle sonic intrigue.") A blasting, virtuouso jolt of unrestrained audiovisual energy, it's assuredly the most "tartan" film ever made and—most importantly—punk as fuck. Roisz (b.1967) has been down this kind of road more than once before (2012's ZOUNK!) but for my money the frenzied bombardment of MoE is a neater fit for her deceptively simple, explosive aesthetic. Et voilá: watch here.