Hannes Richter

The Unexpected Guest: Austria's New Film

Hannes Richter
The Unexpected Guest: Austria's New Film

Top photo: Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained

By Robert Dassanowsky

Guest author Robert Dassanowsky is Professor of German and Film Studies at the Unversity of Colorado, Colorado Springs and a founding Vice President of the Austrian American Film Association.

The maturation of New Austrian Film, which is not guided by any manifesto and includes many styles and genres, came with Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) which was the first Austrian film to compete at Cannes since the 1950s, and with Barbara Albert’s award-winning Nordrand (1999). Albert’s film, which stars one of the popular actresses of this new film generation, Nina Proll, deals with alienation and the transitory quality of life among a group of young people in Vienna and spearheaded the strong female creative presence in Austrian film in the 21st century.

The works of Barbara Gräftner, Ruth Mader, Jessica Hausner, Mirjam Unger, Kathrin Resetarits, and Ruth Beckermann, have all gained wide audiences, dealing with shifting social and gender roles. Haneke’s Die Klavierspielerin/The Piano Teacher (2001) based on 2004 Nobel Prize-winning Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek’s metaphor on self-abusive repression in the high-culture and economically prosperous atmosphere of contemporary Austria, has found both controversy and acclaim as has Ulrich Seidl’s Hundstage/Dog Days (2001) and Götz Spielmann’s Antares (2004).

Both films present intertwined stories of dehumanization, violence and loneliness in Vienna’s outer districts. Spielmann’s Oscar-nominated Revanche (2008) blends the crime film with existentialist crisis for an entertainingly philosophical work. A recognizable Austrian documentary style has also developed, as seen in the Oscar-winning actor (and director)Maximilian Schell’s Meine Schwester Maria/My Sister Maria Schell (2001), Andre Heller’s Im toten Winkel, Hitler’s Sekretärin/Blind Spot-Hitler’s Secretary (2001), and Hubert Sauper’s award-winning Darwin’s Nightmare (2004).

An Austrian filmmaker residing in France, Sauper explores the consequences of the introduction of the Nile perch into Lake Victoria in the 1960s. The result has moved far beyond ecological damage and provides a cautionary tale on globalization. Shot mostly in undercover situations over a period of six months, Sauper’s film was presented with several major awards including an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Film. Über Wasser: Menschen und gelbe Kanister/About Water: People and Yellow Cans (2007) by Udo Maurer, is another galvanizing look at a looming eco-catastrophe.

The Austrian documentary style finds its most hypnotic expression, however, in Unser täglich Brot/ Our Daily Bread (2005) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, in which the audience is subjected to the alien landscapes and horrific beauty of automated food production. Experimental short films and the re-use of “found film” by Peter Tscherkassky, Maria Lassnig, Martin Arnold, Gustav Deutsch, Hubert Sielecki, Bady Minck, and Virgil Widrich has become a significant influence among young filmmakers throughout Europe and the U.S. Austria’s New Film often finds its effectiveness in a bitingly ironic writing style.

Josef Hader’s early tragicomic Indien/India (1993), directed by Paul Harather, revisited the long influence of Viennese cabaret on Austrian comic films and became a national box office triumph as did Hinterholz 8 (1998) by Harald Sicheritz and Roland Düringer. Hader’s work as writer-actor for Wolfgang Murnberger’s Komm süsser Tod/Come, Sweet Death (2000) and Silentium (2004), both based on novels (once a popular source for Austrian film, now a rarity), results in contemporary crime thrillers with strong social critique.

Michael Glawogger is also fascinated with class and social abuse in documentary and such feature films as the surreal Die Ameisenstrasse (1995), the more realistic class-conflict character study, Slumming (2006), and the documentary on international prostitution, Whore’s Glory (2011). Most demonstrative of Austria’s new role in a post-Soviet reborn Central Europe and Vienna’s return to its old status as a hub for the region’s artistic endeavors is the transnational quality of filmmakers and artists in its cinema and art schools.

The significance of foreign artists making multilingual films in Austria or with Austrian co-production is notable. These include Serbian filmmaker Goran Rebic’s Yugofilm (1997) and his metaphoric journey on the river that connects Central and Eastern Europe, Donau/Danube (2003), Iranian-Austrian Houchang Allahyari’s ethnic comedy Geboren in Absurdistan/Born in Absurdistan (1999), and the Austrian-Bosnian-Croatian-German co-production of Jasmila Žbanić’s Grbavica (2006), about the life of a single Bosnian mother in Sarajevo in the aftermath of abuse by Serbian troops.

Like Hubert Sauper’s more elastic national connections, Michael Haneke also finds his pan-European vision working in France. As perhaps the most internationally recognized “name” of all New Austrian Film, he has become known for his almost clinical approach to images evoking paranoia in the collapse of modernist order and meaning. In addition to Die Klavierspielerin/The Piano Teacher (2001), his award-winning Caché (2005) watches coldly as the secure life of an urban couple is destroyed and a hidden past emerges when they receive video cassettes surveying their daily existence.

The Cannes Golden Palm Award-winning German-Austrian-French-Italian co-production Das weiße Band/The White Ribbon (2009), turns to the symbolic origins of fascism in a German town before World War I. Stefan Ruzowitzky contributed to the critical reinvention of the evergreen Austrian genre of the provincial melodrama known as the Heimatfilm in 1998 with Die Siebtelbauern/The Inheritors, an allegorical look at class and gender conflict and abuse in a traditional farming community in post-imperial Austria. His film, Die Fälscher/The Counterfeiters (2007), is based on the true story of the largest counterfeiting operation in history, set up by the Nazis with concentration camp inmates. It became Austria’s first recipient of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

As of 2009, the Academy of Austrian Film celebrate the finest of contemporary Austrian film -its directors, actors, writers, cinematographers, and designers - with its own “Oscar” at an annual ceremony televised from the Rosenhügel Studios (Vienna’s oldest surviving studio complex—originally designed by Louise Kolm Fleck and her husband Jacob Fleck in the 1920s) or from Vienna’s majestic City Hall.

The current co-presidents of the Academy are director-writer Barbara Albert (Northern Skirts) and film and television actor and director Karl Markovics (The Counterfeiters). Austrian film has had a steady presence at the European Film Awards and in competition across the continent in recent years. The segments of Ulrich Seidl’s controversial trilogy, Paradise (Love/Faith/Hope) (2012) screened at the 2012 Cannes, 2012 Venice (Special Jury Prize) and 2013 Berlin festivals.

This January the German Max Ophüls Prize was given to Der Glanz des Tages/The Shine of the Day (2012) by the South Tyrolean-Viennese filmmaking couple Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel. The Festival’s Saar Minister President Prize went to the debut film by young Austrian director Katherina Mückstein, Talea (2013), which stars Nina Proll, one of Austria’s most popular actresses at home and abroad. In early February, Daniel Hoesl’s Soldate Jeannette/Soldier Jane (2013) shared top honors at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and also premiered at the prestigious Sundance Festival in Utah.

Michael Haneke's masterpiece Amour won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013

Michael Haneke's masterpiece Amour won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013

The successes of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who earned an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Cannes award for Best Supporting Actor in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) in 2010 and returned for the 2013 Best Supporting Actor Oscar and BAFTA (U.K) Award for Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), is also fostering new recognition for the concept of “Austria” among young Americans. Hosting the classic television comedy skit show Saturday Night Live in February, Waltz wryly informed the audience that he is the first German-speaking host in the 38-year history of the show, but there should be no confusion about his nationality.

His sense of humor comes from being an Austrian. And for the first time in Oscar history an Austrian co-production - Michael Haneke’s poetic meditation on the end of life but the continuation of love, Amour/Liebe (2012) - was nominated for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which it received, as well as for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture Oscars. It was also was honored with the Cannes Palme d’Or, a Golden Globe, two BAFTA Awards and five Césars (France).

Given the new national and international interest in Austrian cinema, filmmakers have become a unified force with political influence with the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century, and have worked to increase subsidies and control of national festivals and promotion. The Film Academy at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna and other emerging film schools train and promote young filmmakers. Cinema theaters have returned in the form of multiplex houses that attract sizeable numbers, and in lavish art houses that feature retrospectives and festival screenings.

Austria’s film history has also become a popular draw. Much of this is due to the research and restoration work of the Film Archive Austria, which has created an authoritative DVD film series and also a more popular-aimed collection with the newspaper Der Standard –“Der österreichische Film.” There are the internationalist screenings of the Austrian Film Museum, and the national and global venues of the Diagonale, Viennale, and Vienna Independent Short (VIS) Film Festivals, among many other regional celebrations of the art.

Much of this New Austrian Film journey is also based in the development of the Austrian nation during the past few decades, as its socioculture deals with a new geopolitical role in Central Europe. A most important and welcome factor, however, is the new desire to look back to the traditions, innovations, and major talents that the Austrian film nation has cultivated, and has also given to other national and international cinemas.