Germany Grabs Box-Office Numbers, While Austrian Arthouse Fare Attracts More Attention Worldwide
by Anthony Kaufman
Germany's film industry has a lot to be proud of these days. Caroline Link's Oscar-winning "Nowhere in Africa" is so far the top grossing foreign-language film of 2003 in the United States, and waiting in the wings is Wolfgang Becker's "Good Bye, Lenin!" (to be released next year by Sony Pictures Classics and set to break box-office records in Europe for a German-language film) and Sonke Wortmann's World Cup crowd-pleaser "The Miracle of Bern," which recently screened for the industry at MIFED. The market share for homegrown product in Germany is up to 14.5 percent (from last year's 11.8 percent), according to Variety, bolstered by films like "Good Bye, Lenin!," "Anatomy 2," and kids pic "The Flying Classroom."
In the U.S., two major German film festivals just wrapped (the AFI Film Festival's "Made in Germany" sidebar and the Museum of Modern Art's "Kino 2003: New German Films" program), showcasing a slate of new German cinema that is vastly arrayed. Big-budget pablum like "Bern" and Fatih Akin's "Solino" screened alongside the humorless movies of Margarethe von Trotta ("Rosenstrasse"), Oskar Roehler ("Angst"), and Winfried Bonengel's ("Fuhrer Ex") and the more European arthouse work of young auteurs Christian Petzold ("Wolfsburg"), Hans-Christian Schmid ("Distant Lights"), Oliver Hirschbiegel ("My Last Film"), and Iain Dilthey, who contributes one of the best German imports, "The Longing," a Fassbinder-like portrait of a repressed pastor's wife who comes out of her shell at the same time as a man is killing women in her small town. And falling somewhere in between is Max Faerberboeck's overwrought, but eminently watchable "September," a sleekly edited drama about the effects of September 11th on a group of Germans.
While the German film festivals are an annual event, bolstered by the Export-Union of German Cinema's marketing manpower (which helps put on similar events everywhere from Paris to Moscow to London to Madrid), the arrival of "Breaking Rules: New Austrian Cinema," currently running at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music through next Sunday, provides a glimpse into a national cinema that is certainly linked (financially) to its big brother next door, but is beginning to branch out on its own.
Even though just about all Austrian features receive some German funding and some former Vienna-based filmmakers have defected to their larger neighbor (most notably, "The Inheritors" director Stefan Ruzowitzky, who went on to make German horror-thriller blockbusters "Anatomy" and "Anatomy 2"), the Austrian industry is beginning to give the Germans a run, if not for their money, at least for their artistry.
Locally produced films in Austria almost doubled from 2001 to 2002 (from 12 to 23); Austrian auteur Michael Haneke's (French-language) "The Piano Teacher" made $1 million in the United States last year. His follow-up "Time of the Wolf" showed at Cannes and was recently acquired by Palm Pictures. (And it goes without saying that Austria's biggest export, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has never been more famous.)
But two directors, less French (or American) and more Austrian, have recently taken to the world cinema stage with stunning results. Ulrich Seidl's perverse, caustic cinema (most recently seen in "Dog Days") feels more tempered, but no less relentless with his latest film, a quasi-documentary called "Jesus, You Know" (which opened the BAM series last weekend), a dour, darkly comic portrait of people's confession-like religious prayers played directly to the camera. Seidl vacillates between mean-spirited mockery and tender understanding -- and it's within this ambiguity where his genius lies.
Barbara Albert, director of "Northern Skirts" (also playing at BAM), recently turned heads with her latest, the German-language "Free Radicals," an ambitious story of interwoven lives and deaths that played at Locarno, Toronto, and New York and was recently acquired for U.S. release by Kino International. While some critics have leveled the same sort of criticisms on Albert's work as on Haneke and Seidl (calling it "lacking in humanity" or "too detached"), Albert doesn't see it that way. She contends she has a profound affection for her characters, as does Seidl.
"Some of the films are very distant and look at the characters from very outside," she admits of her fellow Austrian's work, "but sometimes, it turns around and you feel like, 'This is really about loneliness.' And there's something behind this distance."
Alexander Horwath, director of the Austrian Film Museum, and the curator of the BAM "Breaking Rules" series, says this bitter humanism is a way of rejecting the dominant Western media, with its constant depictions of life as full of happiness and success.
"The main aim in the cinema is definitely not entertainment," he explains, "but to continue along a path of film as the connecting tissue to the real world" and "the real lives of quiet (and not so quiet) desperation." Horwath suggests that the recent success of the films internationally may indicate audiences' dissatisfaction with current Hollywood and mainstream arthouse fare, with their usually victorious, pat conclusions. (However, he also notes the presence of Austria's comic tradition, most notably seen in Florian Flicker's "Hold-Up," a comedy about a down-and-out robber, albeit still with a twisted edge, also in the BAM series.)
"I think the Austrian cinema is in a very good stage, at the moment," says Albert. "Especially because there are many interesting films by younger, up-and-coming directors; they have their own handwriting; their own way of telling stories."
Along with Albert, there's a pair of emerging women directors with promising work in the BAM series: Jessica Hausner's "Lovely Rita" (2001) employs punctuating zooms and '80s rock tunes for its sharp, Haneke-influenced slice-of-disaffected-teen-life drama that dips into chilling terrain, and Sabine Derflinger's "Step on It" is a documentary that focuses on winter tourism in the ski resorts of the Tyrol, "but without the glossy fun-loving atmosphere," notes Horwath. "She shows the other side: young people working their heads off in the tourist trade, serving and pleasing the German tourists. Her heroine is an alcoholic and a single mother and she dives deeper and deeper into a downward spiral."
"These women all take a strong (but not necessarily autobiographical) interest in girls growing up and young women tearing at the conventions which surround them," says Horwath. "There is little 'feel good' effort in these films, but an 'exhilarating realism' which often deals with pop music, nightlife and secret suburban ways of looking for pleasure and/or rebellion."
The Austrian industry is also notable for what Horwath calls its "non-hierarchical" film culture, where documentary, narrative, and short films are valued as much as the experimental work which Austria is perhaps most noted for (exemplified in the BAM series by Gustav Deutch's early-cinema compilation movie "Film Ist. 7-12," and short films like Peter Tscherkassky's Barbara Hershey meltdown "Outer Space" and the young Virgil Widrich's po-mo crowd-pleaser "Copy Shop." Widrich's latest, an origami Hollywood-found-footage blockbuster called "Fast Film," has also been making the festival rounds).
Filmmakers like Seidl, Albert, and Derflinger all move between these modes, making both fiction and documentary, and sometimes collaborating with each other. "As a producer, I really enjoy this small community," notes Albert, who along with Seidl and Nikolaus Geyrhalter (responsible for the epic documentary "Elsewhere"), have forged ahead with their own production companies. "We all know each other and we all respect each other." And while government subsides have stagnated, according to Horwath, he says, "the talent seems stronger than the generally film-averse cultural climate."