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Gute Projektion: New Austrian Cinema At Diagonale Festival
Tristan Bath , March 31st, 2018 00:55

Tristan Bath heads to Austria’s flagship national film festival, finding impeccably crafted internal struggle at the heart of his adopted home

Murer, dir. Christian Frosch

Every presenter before every film at Diagonale ends their introduction with the same phrase: “gute Projektion”! Not, “enjoy the show”; rather “enjoy the projection”. It’s a subtle but significant difference, and summarises the scholarly vibe of the Austrian movie scene at its key annual festival. Held in various cinemas for a full week in Graz (the country’s second largest city with a population of some 325,000) for twenty years now, Diagonale has the distinction of focusing pretty much exclusively on Austrian cinematic talent - something with increasingly precarious implications following a rocky year of political instability in the country. The ensemble nature of cinema has often made it an unusually good medium through which societies can self-search, and if the 2018 Diagonale roster is anything to go by, Austria (like, to be fair, much of the world right now) is undergoing a reassessment of society at large.

A left-right coalition of ideologically incapacitated caretakers had been the norm here in Austria since the country’s post-war occupation ended in 1955. In 2017’s general election however, there was a tumultuous shift to a coalition of right and far-right parties taking power. This isn’t to suggest that the selection of features, docs, and experimental shorts that make up Diagonale’s busy programme is heavily politically bent - in fact much of it seems rather business-as-usual in the face of these social earthquakes; arguably its own form of rebellion. Yet the re-emergence of the far-right and nationalism across Europe was always going to flare up feelings in Germany-speaking countries more strongly than it would in others. This struggle between national pride and national shame lies at the core of the country’s modern identity - but then again which post-colonial European nation can’t say the same?

Nowhere is this struggle more apparent than in the Diagonale’s most talked-about movie and ultimate grand prize winner: Murer. Directed by Christian Frosch, already a prize-winning director on the scene for two decades now (notably he directed a movie starring Blixa Bargeld in the mid-90s), Murer is a true story courtroom drama, detailing the 1963 trial of Franz Murer, an Austrian SS officer originally from the region surrounding Graz. Murer’s service as an officer in Lithuania from 1941-1943 earned him the nickname “the Butcher from Vilnius”. The city’s jewish population went from some 80,000 to less than 300 by the time he left. Yet loopholes emerging from the treaties with the Allied powers that finally liberated Austria in 1955 led to his coming home from a Russian prison the same year.

Murer takes place almost exclusively in small rooms, or in the emotionally claustrophobic confines of the courtroom itself. The script remains often thoroughly procedural, and much of it was even taken verbatim straight from the records of the trial. Any potential dryness in the methodically assembled story is more-than-offset by universally phenomenal performances (much of the cast speaking in German AND English AND Yiddish I might add) and the constant anxiety of the camera’s frenetic movement, speedily taking in the constant parade of witnesses, lawyers, judges, and courtroom crowd. The ins-and-outs of the story and the trial are utterly nail-biting, the details of the real-life testimony are naturally horrific, and the white-knuckled reaction one gets to any good courtroom drama is a constant presence. It’s however the contrasting characters of the public prosecutor Schuhmann (portrayed by Roland Jaeger) and Murer’s defence lawyer Böck (Alexander E. Fennon) are what elevate the drama to exceptional heights.

Zauberer, dir. Sebastian Brauneis

Prosecutor Schuhmann is barely able to hold his tongue or maintain his composure during cross-examinations, palpably disgusted with the crimes of the SS to the detriment of his professional appearance. Defender Böck on the other hand performs magnificently in his role as defender, leaning on the oft-debated angle that Austria wasn’t complicit but rather “the first victim of the Nazis”; that his client was merely following orders under German occupation. In Böck’s breathtaking closing statement he ecstatically declares, “Austria is free!”, words that inevitably stir something in even the clearest Austrian head (and of little comfort to Murer’s Jewish victims no less). Ultimately though, the defence attorney appears regretful of his part in the story, paradoxically stating that he was “only doing my duty” when defending his client. Murer’s an emotionally wrenching tale - I can’t imagine what an Austrian feels while watching it. We leave the cinema, stepping out onto the very same streets from the movie, agonising over history. It’s directly relevant to the country’s identity, and as a study of (in)justice it’s unsurpassable. The core question of Murer though, is of universal relevance: How does pride survive shame?

The documentary programme of Diagonale is similarly focused inward on Austria herself. Two docs I catch overlap rather heavily in theme (a bit too much perhaps). Bettina Henkel’s Kinder unter Deck (“Children Below Deck”) follows her and her father on a road trip between their Bavarian home and Latvia, tracing her grandmother’s life story escaping Riga for Germany during the tumultuous early-20th century. Bruder Jakob, schläfst du noch? (“Brother Jacob, Are You Still Asleep?”) also tracks its director Stefan Bohun, along with his three brothers, as they dissect what led to their fifth brother’s untimely suicide. Both documentaries are beautifully shot (particularly Bruder Jakob’s lengthy sections in the Tyrolean mountains) and both naturally tug at the heart-strings. However, both documentaries are also mired in an out-of-place artifice. Considering these tales are supposedly in search of some deep inner ‘truth’, the methodology of sitting family members down in well-dressed rooms for very un-candid and showy discussions, or dealing in well-planned shots of subjects wandering aimlessly through natural beauty (again, thoroughly un-candid) seem less revealing of any sort of deeper spiritual truth. If anything it’s a rewriting of the truth. If the feature films seems less ersatz than the docs, something’s afoot.

Bruder Jakob, schläfst du noch?, dir.Stefan Bohun

The reputation of two key directors looms large over much of Austrian cinema: Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl. Both are keen purveyors of feel-bad drama with horror inflections, and the former has even committed the worst possible crime in Austrian cinema and achieved international success (including an Oscar for 2012’s Amour). While one can discern Haneke- and Seidl-esque notes across the Diagonale programme, many movies stick out as evolutions and reinventions of their tone. For example, Zauberer (“Magician”) is the feature film debut for director Sebastian Brauneis. It follows several interlocking stories in modern day Vienna: a child is kidnapped by his school nurse, the mother of a child in a coma calls on gigolos for comfort, a teenager laughs at perverse phone callers after putting his number on a toilet wall. The shared idea uniting the stories appears to be the pursuit of company, i.e. strategies to escape loneliness. Some true horrors lie inside the episodic movie (particularly when tales overlap), plus there’s some real heartbreak. The ultimate conclusion though is decidedly... positive! It’s as if the struggle of the last few years is starting to take its toll, and we’ve all had about enough of feeling hopeless.

It’s impossible to leave Diagonale and not think Austrian cinema punches far above its weight. The amount of talent in front of and behind the camera is staggering (as is the amount investment from governmental bodies might I add), and visually, it’s a consistently sumptuous weekend. There are so many original stories to be told, specific to the unique experience of anybody touched by this small nation. In the era of seemingly endless streaming series online and bottomless franchises in the cinemas, well-crafted and original movies feel like a real rarity. This is an introverted and pensive sort of cinema, providing valuable space to draw one’s own conclusions.