READ MORE: ‘Goodnight Mommy’ Directors on the Value of Violence and How Horror Should Be ‘Challenging’
“Goodnight Mommy,” directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, is representing Austria in the competition for Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards. The eerily elegant thriller about two boys whose mother’s face is wrapped in mysterious bandages is heir to a little-known tradition of Austrian exploitation films. This fall, the Viennale resurrected those movies, many of which have been buried in shame for decades.
David D’Arcy was there, and offers this guide.
Between two sacred places – the Vienna Opera and St. Steven’s Cathedral – profane Austrian cinema is rising from the crypt of oblivion.
A restored theater with red velvet interiors was the showplace at the annual Viennale for In Flesh and Blood, a program of rare screenings of Austrian exploitation movies. Most of the films disappeared after being condemned, discredited, demonized, or withdrawn from view by the filmmakers themselves. They’re back – yet still too far under the radar to turn up on YouTube.
Here is a rogues’ gallery, compiled with the aid of Paul Poet, the filmmaker and historian of Austrian genre movies who curated the series.
“Hexen” (“Witches”) (1949)
Only 10 magical minutes survive from this mix of horror and Heimat (the wholesome heroic local alpine genre with local actors in local accents and local costumes). Starring the anti-Nazi actor Curt Jurgens, the film was shot in the remains of a studio in the hills near Graz where Austria – then divided among the four Allied powers — hoped to produce European films on Hollywood formulas. That dream never came true, and Austrian genre films always struggled in the marketplace.
Vienna is in the unforgiving rubble of war in this no-budget ensemble portrait of misfortune. The city looks like the early days of cinema in its poverty aesthetic, and like the Depression era of pre-Code American films in its brutally frank treatment of the abuse of girls on indifferent streets. Set on the same streets at the same time as “The Third Man,” “Asphalt” makes that classic seem like a blithe romance.
“The Girl with the Mini” (1964)
In the era of Carnaby Street fashion in London, Vienna had its own rule-breaking renegade designer, Rudi Gernreich. Gernreich’s topless bathing suit — tame by any standard of today, but outrageous then — is at the core of this crazy comedy, as lighthearted as Jerry Lewis, which borrows heavily from the swagger of ads and films celebrating swinging styles in London, New York and Paris. It’s a campy time capsule.
Nothing could be more Austrian than a hike into the mountains in lederhosen with a bottle of schnaps, and dozens of lighthearted Heimat films were made on that formula. Heading downmarket into its own take on the zombie fantasy, “Schamlos” (“Shameless”) is a life-sized doll’s merciless revenge upon men who carry it along on an Alpine stag trip. Filmed without much concern for production values, “Schamlos” has given its name to a movement, founded by Paul Poet and others, to save Austrian genre cinema from oblivion.
“The Schoolgirls Report: What Parents Won’t Believe” (1969)
By the sixties, when constraints eased on sex and violence in European films, German-speaking countries rushed to cash in. Austria – as guiltless about nudity and gore as it was about its own Nazi past — offered up its talent.
Ernst Hofbauer, an Austrian director working in Germany, found a formula – faux-reportage about teenaged schoolgirls discovering sex. Starting with “The Schoolgirls’ Report: What Parents Won’t Believe,” Hofbauer enhanced the sex that was already suggested in beach party films and teen dramas and created a multi-sequel franchise that became Germany’s most profitable film export. The Japanese are still ardent fans.
“Mark of the Devil” (1969)
The violence of this witch-hunting sadists’ dream catapulted Udo Kier into notoriety for his role as an apprentice burner of possessed women and launched the directing career of the Austrian actor Adrian Hoven. The cumbersome title in German says it all – “Witches Tortured Until They Bleed.” It also said enough to ensure that the film – featuring the removal of a suspect’s tongue — remains banned in Germany. (It was not alone. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was banned there until two years ago.)
Banned or not, “Mark of the Devil” has a legacy. Americans were lured in by campy souvenir vomit bags stamped with grimacing faces. The bags that audience members were required to carry for admission are sold on eBay today, with a “used” one going for $19.95. Soon Kier and Hoven found their way into the art-house orbit of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s satirical melodramas. The worlds of Austrian pulp and art cinema have overlapped ever since.
“Roots of Evil” (“Die Brut des Boesen”) (1979)
Christian Anders, Austria’s incarnation of Bruce Lee and Sylvester Stallone, a blonde muscleman who directed and starred in 1979 in this Heimat hybrid. His improbable karate film (and its sequel) pitted a home-grown martial artist against a mob of foreign gangsters plotting to shut his karate school.
Deep Roy (before “Star Wars” and Tim Burton) is this film’s Doctor Evil, a pint-sized mob boss with a posse of karate enforcers who didn’t count on meeting the Rocky of the Alps. If this isn’t a curiosity, what is? The film was odd enough to get some traction globally back then.
Austrian pulp lurched into a refined despair in 1983 with “Angst,” Gerald Kargl’s self-financed psycho thriller about a lunatic fresh out of a padded cell (Erwin Leder of “Das Boot”) who commits savagery with a clutch of hostages in the romantic Vienna woods – a vertiginous ride, thanks to director of photography Zbigniew Rybcinski. Kargl spent years making commercials to repay the film’s debts. He refuses to allow the film to be shown in Austria, although it is available in the U.S. and in France, where it was released under the title “Schizophrenia.” Gaspar Noe is an outspoken fan. The absence of “Angst” is a gaping hole in the program.
Angst “is the one movie where my heart bleeds. Everybody in the United States can watch it but we can’t watch it in Austria,” Poet said.”It’s a blueprint for Michael Haneke, to a degree…the sexual destruction game that was mirrored by Haneke in ‘Funny Games.'”
Yet the Oscar-winning auteur of “Funny Games” and “Amour” hasn’t been a public champion of the film. “Haneke is too much of a priest,” Poet said. “It’s too much flesh and blood for him, too much underwear and butts and fists. Haneke likes things reflected from a distance through glass, with a lot of brain and head involved.”
“Cinema is much meatier than that,” Poet stressed. “There’s much more potential, without losing the brains on the way.”
“Die Erben” (“The Inheritors”) (1983)
Brains met fists and politics in 1983 in “Die Erben,” by Walter Bannert, a young man’s entry through sex into a brutal neo-Nazi cult. Exploitation with “Clockwork Orange” overtones collided with the headlines, hitting a nerve when popular support for the Austrian Right was gaining steam – a Romper Stomper (long before that Australian slug-fest) with dangerous history under its belt.
“The mainstream media was kicking Bannert’s butt heavy for blaming Austria from the inside,” said Poet, “It’s very pulp, but at the same time it’s very political and intelligent. It’s one of the neglected masterpieces of Austria.” (Don’t confuse it with a 1998 Austrian film of the same title by Stefan Ruzowitsky.)
“Goodnight Mommy” (2015)
Austrian Pulp lives on in this succes d’estime that reached theaters in the U.S. Who needs witches in Austria, when you’re in the countryside, and the quick-tempered mother in questions has her face covered in bandages? Her twin sons watch her closely, to determine how the masked woman – whoever she is – may act on her anger. Co-director Veronika Franz is the wife of Ulrich Seidl, nothing if not the reigning gadfly of Austrian cinema. Seidl is now producing “The Minus-Man,” the adaptation of Heinz Sobota’s autobiographical novel about a pimp in Vienna in the 1970’s. The director is no less than Paul Poet, champion of Austrian Pulp.