Notes taken in the dark of the cinema tend to fade into each other. They rarely conform to the vivid moments one recalls, later, as constituting the days and nights of a festival.
For example: an interview with Barbara Pichler, artistic director of the Diagonale, the annual festival of Austrian Film taking place in Graz, since 2009 (and recently confirmed for a further four years). Pichler, I assumed, has seen more Austrian productions than most – indeed, perhaps more than one strictly should. ‘What IS Austrian cinema?’ I asked her. By this I meant: what does Austrian film stand for, in an increasingly globalised market? What does it represent? Is it a national identity, or purely an economic condition, a technicality of funding and resources?
Pichler, who had clearly been asked the question a thousand times, answered without hesitation: There is no such thing as Austrian film.
Then there was silence.
There seemed nothing more to say.
And so, with its usual mixture of inspiration, curiosity, and something else—the faintly unrelaxed manner that characterizes large family gatherings—another year’s Diagonale has passed. By its own account, it was a success. 147 films and videos were screened in 134 sessions, 31 of them world premieres. Around 100 directors were present. 18,000 tickets were sold. Capacity ran to 72%. Ostensibly a public festival, it is still the primary meeting place for those who work with and mediate the art of film in Austria: the founding institutions, the museums and writers, the production companies, the distributors.
Looking at the hieroglyphs in my notebook, words become increasingly difficult to decipher, symbols of a problem I could never quite resolve. Festivals are essentially dark spaces; you tap around more or less blindly, trying to light a path that will guide you through them, trying to find your way. One watches. One thinks. One might even write—knowing, even as one does, that most reviews will be read simply as highlights of some Google search result or other . . .
And yet . . . who can resist looking for a greater whole?
No such thing as Austrian film.
A different answer than I would have expected.
When I grew up in the 1990s, contemporary art meant: joy on opposition, attacks, collision. It mainly appeared dualistic, since previous generations of artists were anti-culture, anti-Biedermeier, against concepts of high art; a dualism which must have created the real diversity of sub- and counter cultures. More than that: they were against the very Bourgeois notion of culture as such (1), which I will come back to. Is it naïve to state that more than elsewhere, everything Austrian seemed to have found it’s identity in that harsh bipolar climate?
But there is another truth to consider: that this concept of collision, which has dependably shaped the classical arts—literature, music, painting, the theatre—has, over the decades, seemed much more amorphous and unpredictable when it comes to the art of film.
There might be a few reasons for this. Firstly, filmmaking, much more than any other modern art form, identified itself as a communal product, an industrial process requiring many hands. Secondly, while on the one hand demanding certain specific conditions (actual screening facilities, for instance) its very materials—a camera, celluloid, light, time and motion—offered up a highly elastic definition for the art form that was thereby open to a general diversity (and I’m thinking, here, of Austria’s unusually strong avant-garde/experimental tradition). Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, homegrown problems look very different in the context of an increasingly globalised market that film became (while classical art forms were attached to much more local structures).
Barbara Pichler seemed to sense the pensive moment her statement had triggered. She added: “It is very diverse, but if I have to define ‘Austrian’ cinema, I may say it unites an openness to appropriate, and contribute to, very different cinematic genre forms.”
Diversity. Thus the internationally known fiction features shown this year, might be seen as recognizable Art House Movies: Michael Haneke’s drama Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon, 2009), Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes (2009), Benjamin Heisenberg’s Der Räuber (The Robber, 2010, which premiered in competition at this year’s Berlinale). Yet there is no school (as Coop 99 was, when launched and named in opposition to the rise of the Haider party in 1999), no mutual aesthetic claim, and very distinct references to European cinema. And while those films toured through various festivals, flying the red-and-white flag, a number of small, less celebrated discoveries were emerging at Diagonale.
One of them was Rammbock (2010), the debut film from director Marvin Kren. After the breakout of a massive epidemic, a quarantine zone is established between the infected and the unaffected people, but the distinction between the two groups is not always clear. With his unassuming and nonchalance, Kren has created an ideal protagonist (brilliantly performed by Michael Fuith) to guide the viewer through an unusually wry horror film.
Inside America (Barbara Eder, 2010) was another notable discovery from a young filmmaker. Framed as a semi-documentary, the drama is based on the director’s memories of high school in Brownsville, the southernmost town in Texas, right alongside the Mexican border. The actors are amateurs, drawn from the local community; for the final fight sequence, Eder brought even rival gangs together onscreen.
The historical background of what was before described as Austrian bipolarity, or inner fight, however, is beyond doubt—not least, for the fact that proper discussions of the country’s role in WW2 had for so long been neglected by its population. “Silence and not-knowing: that is the widespread disease,” says a character Helga Hofbauer in Liebe Geschichte (Klub Zwei, 2010) as quoted in the Diagonale program. The documentary by artists and curators Simone Bader and Jo Schmeiser, working under the label Klub Zwei (named after the legendary Club 2 discussion-format at the ORF broadcasting facility, from 1976 to 1995), argues this by looking at the facts. (But even this is not so clear-cut: “fact”, remember, derives from faktum; meaning, as made.)
Thus, their documentary on oral narratives of the present examines the imprint left by the fascist regime. To make the point that this history remains largely invisible, occluded from the casual gaze, cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux takes care to fix the camera on certain precisely chosen architectural settings. History, to the filmmakers, is no less present in the concrete architecture than in the way the interviewees attempt to articulate a way to live in the present, grasping for the appropriate language – their words hacking out a path between the abstract and the personal.
The definition of culture as a term was wildly distinct between the German-speaking countries, and, as I will argue, so too were the consequences for artists acting within each national sphere. In post-war Germany, the concept of culture was unavoidably ideologically scrutinized; in Austria, meanwhile—a country that, as mentioned before, failed to sufficiently interrogate its own delinquency after WW2— it was much less challenged to redefine it’s own identity. Thus in Austria the consequence was for the conservatives and middle class to uphold the classical art forms.
While in the later phase in Germany, public personalities like Joseph Beuys declared a unification of disciplines and allied to a strong left-wing movement, Austrian intellectualism, still wrestling against the deeply rooted narratives of national history, was hanging on to a much more revelatory aesthetic: direct words, an attack on “putrid” language, were important topics by writers such as Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard and concrete poet Ernst Jandl, or by extreme gestural/physical performers such as the Vienna Actionists. This also pinned down an almost historical division between two spheres: the middle class with a classicistic notion of art on one side, and a critical intellectual left-wing, on the other. As a consequence for the definition of culture, however, one might ultimately conclude that, while in Germany the concept was expanded further and further, until it was on the verge to become an empty vessel, in Austria—the term was "Smashed to Pieces in the Still of the Night" (2).
The documentary Die Kinder vom Friedrichshof (Juliane Großheim, 2009) considers the aftermath of an “alternate society.” The narrative is driven by the children having been conceived and raised in the famous Friedrichshof Commune in the Austrian province Burgenland. Mühl, founder, artist and also co-founder of ‘Viennese Actionism,’ served as patriarch there; in 1974—filmmaker Dušan Makavejev dedicated his film Sweet Movie to it (for more information go here). Very different to Liebe Geschichte, yet with the same feeling for expressing complex concepts via (in this case subjective and dynamic) imagery, Großheim and her camerawoman Sandra Merseburger reconstruct a Reichian-style experiment of revelation, from the perspective of what was called the “third generation.” The former children are now young adults.
David Wants To Fly (David Sieveking, 2010), was one of the minority Austrian co-productions that gained attention at this year’s festival. With a title that playfully riffs on Werner Herzog’s classic doc Little Dieter Wants To Fly (1997), the film examines the phenomenon of TM, or Transcendental Meditation, through one of its most high-profile converts, the American filmmaker David Lynch. We watch as the American director—his funereal black suit like the costume of a silent-movie comedian—sets out in search of Enlightenment. But gradually, the focus shifts from one David (Lynch) to another (Sieveking, the filmmaker). In a way like a test run of master’s expressions such as Herzog’s ecstatic truth and Lynch’s Higher Consciousness, the film turns into a highly entertaining spiritual picaresque.
This year’s Diagonale TRIBUTE subjects, meanwhile, were Peter Schreiner and Romuald Karmakar. The choice could not have been more intriguing. Both men are portraitists—yet their approaches are radically dissimilar: Schreiner, a sensual artist with the tactile, material sense of a visual craftsman; Karmakar, the documentarist with the industrial knowledge of a professional autodidact.
While the Munich-born Karmakar seems to be looking for a more reality-sensitive method of representation, favoring long shots without intercuts or collages, the Viennese Schreiner’s documents are more akin to that of an anthropological essayist. In the poetic work I Cimbri (1991), a study of the German-speaking people in the farthest reaches of the Italian north, Schreiner portrays the emergence of mass culture via long static sequences and a tactile use of sound. Ultimately, his preoccupation is with the process of portraiture, the delicate interrelationship between the subject, the camera, and himself.
We see this in 1983’s Erste Liebe, when he turned the camera on his own artists’ community—a work which recalled, for viewers, the films of John Cook (Langsamer Sommer, 1976) and his contemporary Michael Pilz (who’s works have been represented at Diagonale in recent years)—and then again, years later, in Bellavista (2006), a portrait of Guiliana returning to an Italian town. However in Bellavista and the latest, Totó (2009), there is a perceptible shift in his technique: the sequences become shorter, the situations more intimate, the framing more decentralized. Unsurprisingly, as the capture-medium he uses itself goes from celluloid to digital.
“To work against the mystic immortality of Hitler is a declared target of post-war journalism. But Hitler is alive, we are dead. Our interest is blunted; we are fatted with the eternal repetition of the same information ("Jews were murdered by Nazis")...most journalists have lost the fight against him (…) Hitler stole German culture, his work has been rewarded from 1945-1985” —Romuald Karmakar (3)
Either because of his provocations or despite them, Romuald Karmakar is one of the most visible and fiercely productive present-day German directors. Best known for his observational documentary Warheads (1993), a number of his later long films have involved the non-oratory staging of critical texts, usually by contentious figures: from Nazi war leaders (Das Himmler Projekt/The Himmler Project, 2000), to 9/11 terrorists (Hamburger Lektionen/Hamburg Lectures, 2006), to a serial killer (Der Totmacher, 1995). More recent the short film Ramses, which formed part of the portmanteau film Germany 09: 13 Short Films About the State of the Nation (2009)—and considerably more innocent from all mentioned—is Villalobos (2009), a portrait of the Chilean-born DJ, now resident in Berlin, which forms the third part of his trilogy on music and club culture.
Karmakar’s biographer, Olaf Möller, describes his principle for impartiality as more akin to that of an anthropologist than a cinephile; he is, for Möller, an auteur chiefly in his experience of and appetite for life. He is a realist, portraitist, outsider, autodidact. Or, as Möller puts it, “a deconstruction-eager late-punk with anarcho-Bavarian sense of humor and liability to concrete poetry.” (4)
The biographic anthology Romuald Karmakar (5) by Austrian Filmmuseum and SYNEMA (only available in German language), that contains the above quotes, is detailed to point of exhaustion. It collects treatments, images and selected texts, and includes a detailed filmography. At the Diagonale, some of the rarer pieces were presented; after the festival, in Graz, the show continued at the Austrian Filmmuseum. In both cases the director was present, giving live performances and extended talks. My personal favorites were the feature films Manila (2000)—an unsparing look at German sex-tourism in the Philippines—and Frankfurter Kreuz (Frankfurt–Millenium, 1998), which observed New Year’s Eve in a convenience store. Both were beautifully shot by the NY-based camerauteur Fred Schuler, who has worked with the director since Der Totmacher.
Manila, in particular, remains one of his most curious efforts: setting various TV-acclaimed actors in an Hitchcockian, obviously artificial studio set, we watch them proceed through a series of careful, highly mannered conversations and quoted texts. Particularly fascinating were the performances of onetime Fassbinder actress Margit Carstensen, as a stereotypical German housewife, and the broken accent of visiting gastarbeiter Elizabeth McGovern—who sometimes didn’t seem to quite understand what she had just said. The result was strange and faintly disquieting, a drama operating beyond the usual terms of dramatic structures—and therefore often comic.
Strong sexual overtones, intimations of the animal in the human, inform many of Karmakar’s films. They serve to ground the icon of Hitler in Eine Freundschaft in Deutschland (1985)—yet they’re also visible in DEMONTAGE IX- Unternehmen Stahlglocke (1991), a physical performance film which sees the artist-performer FLATZ joined by one of the protagonists from Warheads. Such loyalty (for this is what it is) is unsurprising: in his public appearances, the director has displayed an unusual attachment to both his actors and his subjects—a sign, perhaps, of how much he values the relationships he has built over the work. A self-taught filmmaker and largely self-sufficient (all of his films—including Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder (Nightsongs, 2004)—are essentially single-set pieces, shot in and confined to a single location). In Graz Karmakar has also been invited, Barbara Pichler told me, to inspire young artists, by demonstrating how auteur cinema can be self-organizational, self-sustaining.
But such a way of working comes at a price. The German writer Rainald Goetz wrote of the director’s work:
“One automatically thinks that, once a thing has been achieved, when one is a bit more established, the next thing should be somewhat easier and better. Not true. Experience tells us something quite different. It is always the first time, always the same difficulty, to get something realised. (…) With every success, some doors open, and others close (6). Defiantly, by necessity. By accident? Yes. Never mind. Not everything has to get better, always. Maybe it will get better AND worse, right? Or is this total bollocks? PRACTICE.” (7)
The passage was originally published in a book (Abfall für alle. Roman eines Jahres, 1999), that Frank Giering reads in Die Nacht singt ihre Lieder.
From the section of EXPERIMENTAL or SHORT films, I’d like to briefly mention Manuel Knapp and Tim Blechmann’s information of decay ~, an abstract work reduced to its starkest, most pure elements, the interplay of darkness and white light, which achieves its effects with uncanny pictorial precision. On the soundtrack, a composition of high-frequency sounds, a hissing that might at some point dissolve into sort-of-rain, or a soft, faint shiver of strings, movements that, before they could ever become representational, fade down again. “Maximum disturbance and maximum communication happen at the same time,” states Knapp, helpfully.
“What would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?” Wittgenstein famously asked, when wondering why the sun was for so long thought to be turning around the earth. It felt, to me, like the perfect line to describe Bernd Oppel’s Korridor (2009), a work that, with its reference to Kubrick’s space models, brought this question to the cinema screen. The titular corridor is an optical chamber, a rotating box connected to a relative camera position; while the observer is static, the box is filled objects operating against gravity. The model both demonstrates and undermines the notion of the camera’s ‘gaze,’ the axes of projection operating against the fixed perspective of the viewer.
Finally, there was Catalina Molina’s 40-minute Tallares Clandestinos (2010)—a study of a young Bolivian woman who takes a job in neighboring Argentina. With its meticulous, entirely silent imagery, and note-perfect casting, Molina’s film seemed one of the most valuable boarder crossings made by an Austrian filmmaker this year.
Nevertheless, as so often in the past, I felt left in the dark—if only with questions on aesthetics. Many of these works, particularly those of Romuald Karmakar, were discursive, and invited analysis; but the discussions and presentations (that in his case also continued in the Filmmuseum) remained mostly celebratory in tone. There was a sense that the work had been made, and that was that.
I wonder. In this era when the internet and digital technologies are challenging our methods of production, we might need something else, something more. Not necessarily audience interactive formats, but sites that might challenge and mediate knowledge to the viewer’s satisfaction, surprise and delight.
Despite their strong programmer, Diagonale will likely remain overshadowed, to some extent, by the more glamorous Viennale Film Festival (which still insists upon Austrian premieres). Yet it may use this situation to its advantage, creating a more radical and diverse environment.
And Austrian Film? It might yet be the modern Prometheus. The monster has no name, no history. It is clinically dead—yet at the same time, more alive than ever.
Special thanks to Shane Danielsen for proof-reading.
(1) Important or not, in Germany you will buy “culture-white-mushrooms”, Kulturchampignons, in the supermarket, while the hygiene travel kit is widely called a “culture bag”, Kulturbeutel. Terms inexistant in Austrian German language.
(2) Quoting on conceptual Lawrence Weiner’s wonderful piece written on the undestructable second-world-war anti-aircraft defence tower at Esterhazy Park in Vienna: SMASHED TO PIECES (IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT) // ZERSCHMETTERT IN STÜCKE (IM FRIEDEN DER NACHT).
(3) in: Olaf Möller, Michael Omasta: Romuald Karmakar, Filmmuseum SYNEMA Publikationen, Vienna 2010, p. 40
“Der magischen Unsterblichkeit Hitlers entgegenzuwirken ist erklärtes Ziel 40jährigen Nachkriegsjournalismus’, doch Hitler lebt, gestorben sind wir. Unser Interesse ist abgestumpft wir sind gemästet mit ewig gleicher Information (‘Juden wurden von Nazis ermordet’), die meisten Journalisten haben den Kriegen gegen ihn verloren (…)”
(4) “ein dekonstruktionslustiger Spät-Punk mit anarchobajuwarischem Humor und Hang zur konkreten Poesie.” quoted in Romuald Karmakar, ibid. p. 40
(5) The publishing scope is fairly wide, on Austrian filmmakers, specific research topics and on international auteurs such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Gustav Deutsch, James Benning and Jean Epstein.
(6) In German the word game is between zufallen, as doors “shout close”; and the Zufall, that means “chance”.
(7) “Irgendwie denkt man automatisch: wenn mal was gelungen ist, man sich so ein bißchen durchgesetzt hat, müßte es in Zukunft mit den neuen Sachen auch irgendwie leichter und besser gehen. Stimmt aber nicht. Die Erfahrung sagt was anderes. Es ist immer neu gleich schwierig, irgendwas realisiert zu kriegen. (…) Mit jedem Erfolg öffenen sich Türen, und gehen gleichzeitig auch welche zu, aus Trotz, zum Ausgleich, einfach so, aus Zufall. Fallen aus Zufall zu. Ja. Macht doch nichts. Muß doch nicht alles immer nur immer besser werden. Es wird halt vielleicht besser UND schlechter meistens, oder? Oder ist das der totale Schwachsinn? PRAXIS.” quoted in Romuald Karmakar, ibid. p. 15