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Viennale Dispatch 2: Mercy/Mortality

Above: Peter Schreiner's Totò.

"Siegel knew about the Windigo, all right. He remembered being scared out of his wits once at camp by the fireside yarn image of a mile-high skeleton made of ice, roaring and crashing through the Canadian wilderness, grabbing up humans by the handful and feeding on their flesh."
—Tom Pynchon, 'Mortality and Mercy in Vienna' (1959)

I suspected as much after seeing his 2007 film Bellavista, but catching his latest work Totò in its one public screening at the Viennale—in the Kunstlerhaus on the evening of Wednesday 28th—confirms it beyond any doubt. Peter Schreiner, born in Vienna in 1957, may not be among Europe's better-known documentarians, but based on these two films alone (he has a string of intermittent credits stretching back to the early eighties) he's clearly one of the best.

In total I saw 37 feature-length films at this year's Viennale and the ones I would most enthusiastically recommend are Lino Brocka's terrifically hard-hitting urban thriller Jaguar from 1979 (see Viennale Dispatch 1)—and Totò. The latter is a 128-minute affair, shot on crisp monochrome video (but projected in Viennale via 35mm), which premiered in Venice at the end of September—so far, I have been unable to find any reviews of the film arising from that festival.

It is a documentary of an unusually oblique and challenging kind, following fiftysomething longtime Vienna resident Antonio Cotroneo (nicknamed Totò), as he travels back to his birthplace in Italy. That turns out to be Tropea, a bathing-resort in the southern Italian region of Calabria—also the home town of soccer-player-turned-international movie-star Raf Vallone (1916-2002), and Mafia mobster Albert Anastasia (1957). Is Signor/Herr Cotroneo another eminent son of Tropea? By the end of the film (and this is a virtue, not a demerit) we aren't entirely sure—despite spending more than two hours in what his often very close proximity to the subject, and being privy to what sound like his innermost thoughts.

We occasionally glimpse Totò in what looks like a Vienna concert-hall: is he perhaps a musician, or a conductor, or composer? His ruminant voice-over, meanwhile, suggests he may be a poet, actor, or novelist. Or perhaps he's "just" a bloke—the kind of quietly charismatic, rumpled chap one might find in a bar with a glass in one hand and a well-thumbed hardback in the other.

And maybe that's what happened with Schreiner, who—as with Bellavista (a chillingly transcendent portrait of a spiky, self-laceratingly intelligent middle-aged hotelier in a German-speaking enclave of northern Italy) seems to have a rare knack for stumbling across unusual, engrossing individuals and then expressing their personality via his austere but utterly compelling film-making aesthetic. Here, disorientingly close close-ups alternate with panoramic vistas of Tropea's seascapes and interstitial journeys by diurnal foot or nocturnal train.  Schreiner patiently accumulates fragments which illuminate both Totò and Tropea, so that by the end one feels intimately acquainted with both—while acknowledging those certain inaccessible depths which must always lie beyond.

If Schreiner deserves acknowledgement as an established master of his medium, the Viennale also showcased a younger countryman who's very much a name to watch. 32-year-old Siegfried A. Fruhauf's biggest exposure to date has been via the trailer which formerly preceded screenings at the Crossing Europe Film Festival in Upper Austrian capital Linz (where he studied). His latest short Palmes d'Or showed at the Viennale as part of Kurzfilmprogramm 2, seven avant-garde works ranging up to 15 minutes in length.

I found the first five of these to be of low-to-middling merit; things picked up with Christoph Weihrich's snowy, stop-frame "real world animation" 1100 Wien George-Washington-Hof and then rocketed right into the stratosphere with Palmes d'Or. Reportedly made using 800 photographs that were taken during the Cannes Film Festival, this is a six-minute blast of pure and uncompromising punk energy—as brutal and direct as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music in the way it assaults the viewer with too-fast-to-process images ("he layered the pictures one over another, distorted and deformed the results until what remains are mere schemata that appear at lightning speed only to withdraw from the overtaxed eye abruptly" —Viennale catalogue) and a relentlessly blunderbussing, steamrollering sonic racket.

It's like watching every film ever made, simultaneously, and by the end feels like nothing less than the very end of cinema: meaning its destination/conclusion and its culminating justification. And because the whole image is affected by the positioning of the eye, you'll see an entirely different film every time. A stimulant to the senses so frenzied as to feel almost hazardous, Palmes d'Or is the sole flat-out masterpiece I discovered at the Viennale 2009.

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