ND/NF: "Northern Skirts" Raises Austrian Politics and Artists' Concerns in the Age of Haider
by Alex Horwath
(indieWIRE/3.28.2000) -- When "Nordrand" ("Northern Skirts"), the debut feature from 29-year-old Austrian filmmaker Barbara Albert, premiered in competition at the Venice film festival last fall, many international observers and reviewers immediately recognized its cinematic strengths. A subtle, almost "French" kind of realism, detailing life on the wintry and very unglamorous Vienna northside; the use of music and visual movement to portray a generation on the run; and the radiating intensity of its two lead actresses (non-pro Edita Malovcic and upcoming star Nina Proll, who went on to win the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Actress at the Venice festival). What the international community didn't recognize at the time, however, was the highly political nature of "Nordrand" in the context of contemporary Austrian culture.
Besides giving New Yorkers a chance to encounter this great example of young European arthouse cinema, the New York premiere of "Nordrand" at New Directors/ New Films will also allow viewers to place it in a -- by now much-discussed -- political context. This screening comes seven weeks after a new Austrian government was formed by the conservative-catholic "People's Party" and the xenophobic, far-right "Freedom Party" led by the now infamous Joerg Haider.
For the past 15 years, Haider's populist politics of defamation have attempted to portray "foreigners" -- refugees as well as first or second-generation immigrants from Southeast Europe and the Third World -- as a dangerous threat to the "Germanic-Austrian identity." During the same period, small business owners, workers and pensioners felt more and more victimized by modern progress. For them, Haider became a "savior" fighting for their survival. They make up at least half of his voters (27 percent in total). The other half mainly consists of apolitical, career-oriented twentysomethings who are attracted to Haider's other image: a tanned, bungee-jumping, marathon-running sportsman and rich landowner driving Porsches and wearing designer clothes. Although this paradox may be hard to swallow, he is able to play out both the Robin Hood and Patrick Bateman fantasies at the same time (his constituency skews heavily male). The connecting tissue between these fantasies is Haider's super-aggressive style.
But there is another Austria: a nascent civil society which has learned during the Waldheim years to straightforwardly deal with its Nazi past; a society which starts to envision itself as an actively multi-cultural territory. And in "Nordrand" it has found a valid cinematic representation. Released in Austria by a small distributor in December, the film turned into a sleeper success. In the tiny Austrian market, its 50,000 admissions (and counting) mean hit status -- compared to the usual five to ten thousand for arthouse films.
Barbara Albert's film is heartfelt, but never preachy. It very specifically talks about individuals on the margins of society. Two young women meet in an abortion clinic: Jasmin (Proll), a white trash queen from the projects who gives herself freely to the men around her; and her former classmate Tamara (Malovcic), the Vienna-born-and-raised daughter of Serbian immigrants. Tamara's brother is fighting and dying in the Bosnian war (the year is 1995). The three men who repeatedly cross their paths are even less homeward bound: there's the young smartass from Romania who constantly dreams and talks about making it big in America; the soldier who has to guard the Austrian border from "illegal" foreigners; and the Albanian refugee who manages to slip into the country at night.
The film recognizes that Vienna has become a melting pot again for the first time since the 1930s. Also, the fragile forms of solidarity between the film's characters give us an idea of their shared social/political interests which disrupt Haider's "Us vs. Them" rhetoric. The oft-quoted "hardworking little people" (that's Haider's favorite term of appreciation) have much more in common with the "criminal foreigners" (that's Haider's favorite defamation) than the Freedom Party would ever dare to admit.
And finally, there's Albert's narrative tone and mise-en-scene -- a complex web of emotions, of quiet desperation and utopian outbursts. It's the aesthetic opposite of the "strong" and hierarchical imagery promoted by Haider and his lackeys.
When the anti-government demonstrations started in Vienna on February 4th, Barbara Albert was there, marching and chanting with the crowds, next to a large number of other artists and filmmakers. How strange it must have been when she heard that in Hollywood, a group of Jewish Academy members had called for a boycott of "Nordrand"'s L.A. screenings -- as Austria's official entry in the Foreign Language Oscar nominations. As it turned out later, the boycott didn't happen (except maybe on an individual basis); the screenings went on as planned. One might assume that those who saw the film were struck by a very different image of Austria than the one they expected.
But this "call to arms" by an understandably worried U.S. film community (some of them having escaped Nazism in Austria and Germany in the 1930s) throws light on the problems that Austrian artists are now facing. Probably 80 or 90 per cent of them oppose Haider and the new government in words and deeds, but -- at least in the first few weeks -- the fact that they're AUSTRIAN artists already speaks against them. Obviously, two things need to become clear in the cultural world: Austrian artists will have to make sure that their international presentations cannot be construed as "officially representing" (thereby legitimizing) the new government; and they'll have to be there and talk about the situation at home -- as representatives of "another" Austria.
On the other hand, international art institutions, curators, etc. should realize that they are playing into Haider's hands if they boycott Austrian art (instead of governmental institutions). Supporting critical Austrian art today means helping to create an international platform for this other Austria, a discourse of dissent that will be heard at home, too.
At the Berlin Film Festival, which opened five days after the new government was installed, Austrian filmmakers were already present with a strong indictment, published in all festival media. In Vienna, Paris and L.A., people like Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Haneke and even Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke out against the Freedom Party and its newfound "respectability" -- and these three guys aren't exactly known as leftists.
This week in the city of Graz, the national film festival "Diagonale" plays host to a number of political debates and film/video statements commenting on the situation. The new State secretary of culture will not be allowed to speak from any stage or podium. In the opening pages of the festival catalogue, the following text has been published, signed by a few hundred filmmakers, critics and curators:
"We don't care what the new government promises, which program it offers, which work it performs: We simply refuse to accept the coalition with a party that has consistently broken the democratic consensus. The Freedom Party promotes racism, xenophobia and the slandering of all dissenting views. The current coalition with the Freedom Party attempts to legitimize such strategies and politics. We therefore reject this government and its members. We demand their resignation."
As Austrian culture has always had strong links to the state (with subsidies guaranteeing the existence of non-mainstream, non-commercial art), this clear positioning has come as quite a surprise.
The creative team behind "Nordrand" is among the undersigned, as is the film's producer, Erich Lackner of Lotus Film. He's become a figurehead of critical, non-mainstream film activity in recent years, producing creative political documentaries as well as features. (Lackner was one of several co-producers on Eyal Sivan's amazing film about the Eichmann trial, "The Specialist" -- which begins its U.S. release in April via Kino International; and his Jugofilm, directed by the Serbo-Viennese Goran Rebic -- an earlier sign of "multi-cultural" Austrian cinema.) Now he has started to coordinate the various ideas that are being proposed for short films and videos on the current political situation.
As "Nordrand" is being shown in New York, the director and producer seem to be sharing duties: Barbara Albert will be