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How Indie Film Survives In Austria (Even If You Haven’t Heard Of It)

How Indie Film Survives In Austria (Even If You Haven't Heard Of It)

The Viennese have tended to view film as secondary to the elite arts of opera, theater and music. The autonomy that comes from that snub has its benefits.

“It may not be the most important film festival in the world, but you have the feeling that if a film is here, it is in good hands,” said Hans Hurch, the director of the Viennale, which concluded its latest edition earlier this month.

An international festival in a town whose film culture can always benefit from foreign infusions, the Viennale was not overburdened with recycling the obvious “international” hits of the art house circuit, although it introduced its audience to some of them. Celebrities, while in attendance, were not in oversupply. “Fading Gigolo” made a quiet European debut at the Viennale without director John Turturro, or Woody Allen or any stars from its dream team cast — or any mention that this was its European premiere. Jerry Lewis never made it to the Viennale’s extraordinary Lewis retrospective.

And those “stars” who did show up were not necessarily the celebrities who walk the red carpet elsewhere. Will Ferrell, the subject of a tribute this year at the Viennale, was one. Another was Claude Lanzmann who, if he had a sense of humor, might have joked about apprehensions toward any lineup in Austria that included him.  Instead, Lanzmann scolded questioners after the Austrian premiere of his revelatory new documentary, “The Last of the Unjust,” a marathon interview from 1975 with Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, the last man to head Austria’s Jewish Council (Judenrat) under the Nazis (it opens in the U.S. in early December). There are still Viennese Jews who view the former leader as a Nazi collaborator.

One of the Viennale’s missions (among many) is to show Austrian films. It is a responsibility with a special interpretation here.  Being Austrian does not guarantee inclusion.

Some of those films don’t get to the Viennale until they premiere internationally, where Austria profits from the attention.

A case in point this season was “October November,” the latest from Goetz Spielmann (“Revanche,” “Antares”), a leader in what we might call the post-Haneke generation. This slow, deliberate drama, making its Austrian premiere at the Viennale after showing in Toronto and San Sebastian, focused on the shaky gloomy reunion of two sisters after their father (Peter Simonischeck) collapses from a heart attack in the hotel that the family operates in the Alps.  It’s not a film that makes you look forward to middle age.

Sonja (Nora von Waldstatten), the younger of the two, plays an actress who’s found success in Berlin, although that acclaim has come without much personal satisfaction. Verena (Ursula Strauss) is the older sister who stayed with her father and the family property, dutifully married to a hardworking local guy, with an adorable son, although she can’t resist flirting with her ailing father’s doctor (Sebastian Koch, a major German-speaking star in a relatively small role).

Most of the film is a vigil. Sounds like a familiar echo, so soon after “Amour,” but “October November” concentrates on the next generation after the father suffers another attack and lies in fitful unconsciousness.  See the film, and you’ll know what fitful means. It’s not quite “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” but you can see where things are going — toward death —  which seems to sum up Spielmann’s world view here. No suspense here. Unlike “Revanche,” this is no thriller, and admirers of that earlier Spielmann film may be disappointed.

The two sisters, whose lives have drifted apart, are each other’s link to the vestiges of a family  —  a sober observation but one that we might expect from a director who’s recently turned fifty. Rain and grey skies don’t provide much relief. Setting the film in a sprawling hotel, Spielmann suggests that secrets might lie in its many unexplored rooms. (Austria, after all, is a place holding plenty of secrets, as we learn whenever art looted from Jews turns up.) The only guests in the inn are a group of Catholics who hike to mountain summits where they prey. Glowing with optimism, the pilgrims have an everyday happiness that the daughters don’t share.

Solidly (if solemnly) acted, gracefully paced, and filmed with elegance and subtlety, “October November” is what we have come to expect from Austrian cinema, i.e., subjects that tend to be far too serious for teenagers or tent-pole families. Even with a small role for Sebastian Koch (among the most marketable names in German-speaking films), it probably won’t get past the festival circuit and into cinemas in North America. Austrian films suffer the same fate as almost anything subtitled (well, almost anything — remember that Austria won an Oscar, not just for “Amour,” but also for “The Counterfeiters in 2007).

Even farther from the same marketplace is “Those Who Go Those Who Stay,” a loosely-structured documentary about the growing dysfunction of Europe that made its world premiere at the Viennale.

Shifting in a random fashion from rain on a window in Paris to streets in Sicily to shots of veiled women crossing streets (modern Europe), director Ruth Beckermann’s film compiles evidence that the myth of a unified Europe is just that, a myth. The reality that we see in this collection of scenes and images is fragmentation.

Nowhere is that perception clearer than in Beckermann’s scenes from Lampedusa, the isolated Mediterranean island south of Sicily. Africans are dying to get this sand bar — literally, as many have drowned in the process. If they are fortunate enough to arrive, they are detained and shunted into camps. The whole process of capture-and-jail happens under sunny skies in eye-shot of the shore. It is a crime to help these immigrants. (After Beckermann finished the documentary, and before its premiere, 359 African immigrants died in a boat that sank off Lampedusa after someone aboard started a fire to attract attention.)

Beckermann, now 61, has been making films for decades. Her previous documentary was “American Passages,” a survey of the U.S. upon the election of Barack Obama with the same multi-character, multi-narrative approach as in “Those Who Go Those Who Stay.” Beckermann’s journey through and into America tests the American experiment according to how it measures up to the American promise — unevenly, we learn in her conversations with Americans who seem to be naïve in their views of history and politics, and racist in their everyday behavior.

In conflict there is drama. “American Passages,” to Beckermann’s knowledge, has never been shown in the United States. But it’s a European perspective from which we could learn a thing or two.

As Beckermann’s grim ode to Europe, “Those Who Go Those Who Stay” has an autobiographical dimension. Beckermann is Jewish, the daughter of a mother who fled to Palestine in 1938 (returning to Vienna after the war) and a father from Czernowicz (a city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that became Rumanian and is now in Ukraine) who fled communism. Austria’s former empire was a place of huge waves of internal immigration. Two world wars and a Nazi extermination campaign reminded us that the melting pot could turn deadly.

“Those Who Go Those Who Stay” never becomes so alarmist. It just points in that direction.

In a conversation with Indiewire during the Vienalle, Beckerman was asked to define independent film in Austria. “I think there is only independent filmmaking in Austria,” she replied. “There are no big companies in Austria. There are many small production companies, there are many filmmakers who produce their own films. We have a couple of funding institutions and that’s it. There’s no private money in film in Austria. There’s no industry,” she noted.

Still, in recent years, the country’s profile has risen. “Before Haneke, there was very little attention in Austria to film,” said Beckerman, whose films usually play exclusively on television. “We’re a country of theater and opera and music, and even today, outside the Viennale, it’s difficult to bring attention to what we do.” 

That’s partly due to audience interests elsewhere. “It’s always the bourgeois public that counts, and they don’t care a lot about movies,” Beckerman said. “They care about the Burgtheater [Vienna’s most famous theater] and the opera.”

Beckermann starts from a different perspective. “My whole background is with refugees, and my whole work is about running away and refugees’ memories and on the other hand, utopia,” she said. “That’s why I made a film in the U.S. How is it possible to build a state with refugees?”

Still, Beckermann is just one voice in a festival that shows a lot more than social and political documentaries.

“The Austrian films that I show have to be seen in the context of an international film festival,” said festival director Hans Hurch. “The Viennale should not be the window or the showcase for Austrian film. It would make us a kind of bastard festival.”

Hurch has faced some opposition to this approach from the national film scene, but holds his ground. “This helps the films that I show more than if I would show 20 or 25 films from Austria,” he said, adding that it means the Austrian films that do get selected stand out. “This is my idea, and it brings me into conflict with the Austrian filmmakers, who want their work to be shown,” he said. “It’s always been a conflict.”

In contrast, Hurch said, the “Haneke effect” in Austria lifts all boats. (Haneke still teaches in Vienna.) “It has been very helpful, but for the same reason that it would be anywhere else in the world,” he said. “The politicians here are not very interested in cinema, but if they have a chance to be with a filmmaker if he comes back with an Oscar, or the Palme d’Or, it’s the best lobbying for film, for film festivals, for film production — everything.”

But this year, with no Austrian film in Cannes or Venice — effectively taking Austria off the map for a lot of audiences worldwide — “then the politicians are not interested in it anymore,” Hurch said. “It goes from year to year.” 

“In Austria, it’s very much about the person of the filmmaker,” said Hurch. “It’s not the structure, it’s not the machine. It’s about someone like Michael Haneke or Ulrich Seidl who goes his own way. I think Haneke would have made the same thing if he was Swiss.”

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