Austrian and Boldly Going
Published on July 13th, 2012 | by Tynan Kogane0
“The Austrian Cultural Forum New York: The First Decade” runs from July 13-22 at Anthology Film Archives.
Austrian Culture Forum New York is celebrating its ten-year anniversary by teaming up with Anthology Film Archives and screening a collection of films made by Austrians during the last ten years. Rather than showing a bunch of films that are exclusively about Austria, they’ve curated an eclectic mix that highlights different cultures, languages, and aesthetics. Some of the directors and films are already quite well known, such as Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” (2009) or Gotz Spielmann’s “Revanche” (2008), but a few are almost completely unknown to American audiences, such as the the surprisingly entertaining “Zorro’s Bar Mitzvah” (Ruth Beckermann, 2006), a documentary about four Jewish children into entering adulthood with completely different types of celebrations, or “Babooska” (Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, 2005), which follows a group of circus performers through central Italy.
In this diverse range of films, a few were bound to be more memorable than the others. Though I can’t say that I disliked any of them, it was the most memorable ones—memorable for much different reasons—that I’ve chosen to highlight at length.
The first film in the series, Jessica Hausner’s “Lourdes,” takes its name from the holy French town where it is set. Lourdes is a place where miracles are believed to occur—a destination for catholic pilgrimages, famed for a sighting of the Virgin Mary—but it also has the unmistakably comic mood of a tourist destination. Visitors attend services that are held in a variety of languages, where they pray for themselves and their loved ones; they buy souvenir statuettes of the Virgin Mary; they drink and bathe in the waters that are thought to be holy; they await miracles. Hausner perfectly captures—without irony or cynicism—this weird mix of gaudiness and somber mysticism. Her shots of the town and its pilgrims are meticulously composed, and offer a rare type of photographic beauty.
Christine (Sylvie Testud), the film’s protagonist, has severe multiple sclerosis and can’t move her arms or legs. She’s visiting Lourdes with a group of disabled and elderly people, and is escorted by wheelchair through various scheduled activities. Always accompanied by a chaperone—and usually with the rest of the group, too—she eats in a dining hall, visits some of the holy spots, and attends mass. The pacing is slow, but tension grows from experiencing the pilgrimage alongside her. The other pilgrims constantly gossip about miracles (who deserves them, who gets them, the exact spots where they’ve occurred, and the possibility of relapses afterwards) because that’s all they seem to have in common. Christine’s nurse, Maria (Léa Seydoux), sometimes neglects her and flirts with one of the guards, an officer of the Order of Malta. An elderly woman in the group begins to care for her. Another member of the group seems to think Christine is somehow involved with her daughter’s disability. Both on screen and off, all of these elements increase the anxious expectation of the miraculous.
The film’s pacing and its repetition of certain themes—of morality, Catholicism, and the contingency of miracles—reminded me of an Eric Rohmer film, but with less said and more implied through a visual playfulness. Hausner handles these themes deftly and with open-mindedness to create nuanced relationships between the pilgrims, and shows several characters in pure moments of jealousy, disbelief, consolation, hope, and determination.
It isn’t very much fun to watch either “Workingman’s Death” (Michael Glawogger, 2005) or “Our Daily Bread” (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2005). Both films are documentaries that explore, without too much obvious sentimentality or didacticism, human labor and industry. Although they both depict their subjects with mesmerizing imagery—at once familiar, startling, and otherworldly—it’s hard not to turn away and wince at the sight of chickens being disemboweled by intricate machines on a conveyer-belt, or African workers hacking apart dead cows with machetes. Though the juxtaposition of these two films is mostly coincidental, it’s difficult to resist comparing them because of their almost perfectly contrasted perspectives on industrial workplaces.
“Workingman’s Death” documents four different groups of laborers in geographically specific locations. Its director, Michael Glawogger, must have searched far and wide for some of the post-industrialized world’s shittiest jobs—where workers are truly Sisyphean and their industries already archaic. These tireless workers, almost exclusively men, are romanticized as the last hardcore manual laborers in an increasingly hygienic, sterile, safe, and mechanized global workplace. A haggard group of Ukrainian coalminers extract leftover coal from abandoned mines—they greet the mine every morning with a “hello,” chip away bits of coal from claustrophobic crawlspaces, and return home in the evening, blackened, with sacks of coal to heat their homes. Indonesian miners poke chunks of sulfur loose from a volcano with a pike, and then carry the sulfur in baskets on their sun-drenched, calloused shoulders back to the town. In a meat market in Nigeria, workers slaughter goats and cows, roasting, cleaning, and dissembling them, while wading though pools of blood and debris. In a shantytown on the coast of Pakistan, a quiet and serious group of laborers take apart enormous broken-down ships for scrap metal. None of the various groups of workers seem to genuinely resent their work, but instead regard it with a sort of fatalistic vigor.
Accentuating the noises of human labor—hammering, marching, cutting, and splitting—is a perfectly synchronized soundtrack by John Zorn, which reinforces the powerful, visceral, and masculine nature of the work. The mood of “Workingman’s Death” becomes both salutary and nostalgic for hard manual labor. And to reaffirm this, interspersed throughout the film—though not too overtly—are moments that depict the deep reverence that these workers have for their work. After a wedding ceremony, the Ukrainian miners offer a bouquet of flowers to a statue of the legendary miner Alexsei Stakhanov. The sulfur miners sacrifice a goat each year to the volcano. An excited Nigerian goat-roaster brags about his fire pit, and talks about his flames as though they were an extension of himself. Workers like these—though exhaustedly toiling away to survive—get to keep their humanity through bodily suffering and endurance, and by maintaining a deep connection with the nature and traditions of their work.
Unlike “Workingman’s Death,” which highlights an abundance of humanity in disappearing industries, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Our Daily Bread” shows the solemn reality of a futuristic agricultural industry. While watching the documentary, I learned many things about food that I didn’t want to know: how cows are milked on a large scale, how cabbage is harvested (at night), and how pigs are raised and then taken apart. Without any of the didacticism or nagging found in other food documentaries (and actually, this film has no dialogue), Geyrhalter draws a mostly objective, deeply disturbing portrait of mass-produced food. It’s probably most upsetting to watch the pigs, chickens, and cows getting slaughtered, but the film doesn’t preach a strictly vegetarian or vegan message. By contrast, the sheer scale of agricultural production—inconceivable amounts of tomatoes in greenhouses, sprawling fields of sunflowers, and cavernous salt mines—is equally grotesque. Everything becomes vertiginously multiplied through machine-operation and the removal of any cultural or social context. And many of the shots are long, allowing them to really sink in. The result of all this, as banal as it may sound, is revulsion and complete alienation. The workers themselves become dehumanized; they are like the machines that they operate (a weird, several-armed machine that guts and fillets fish seems more sophisticated than any of the human operators). These static images of workers—on assembly lines, driving industrial vehicles, or eating food on their breaks—show frighteningly empty people. I probably eat the food they produce every day.
Both “Our Daily Bread” and “Workingman’s Death” are compelling in their own ways, and ultimately it’s a choice between watching a few men extracting semen from a bull with a rubber tube, inside a modernized sterile barn, or watching an African butcher uttering a prayer for each goat as he slits its throat, with almost godlike inspiration, up to his ankles in a pool of blood. And call me old-fashioned, but I think I prefer the latter.
Michael Haneke’s critically acclaimed “The White Ribbon” chronicles the dark events that take place in a small German village at the onset of World War I. The film begins very abruptly, when the village doctor’s horse trips over a wire that has been stretched across the road. The wire has been placed there intentionally to injure him, but nobody seems to know how or why. Other awful things start happening: a child gets abducted and badly beaten; a barn burns down; another boy, who has Down’s syndrome, disappears and is found later with his eyes gouged out. No one knows who’s responsible for these crimes, but everyone in the village seems to be capable of having done them, including—or particularly—the children. The village becomes increasingly scary as each villager is individually exposed. The protestant minister psychologically torments his children, an angry farmer vindictively destroys a crop of cabbage, the doctor is accused of molesting his daughter, etc.—there are too many subplots of psychologically damaged villagers to list here, but combined, it becomes a disturbing collage of mistrust, evil, punishment, and repression. And there are no easy answers. The film’s explanation of the source of these atrocities is something between Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” and the mysterious sinister forces in Twin Peaks.
The village schoolteacher serves as the chronicler of “The White Ribbon.” An elderly man recollecting, with voiceover narration, the events that took place fifty or so years earlier, when he was about thirty years old. He admits that his memory is imperfect, and as well as narrating the macabre events of the village, he also digresses about his sweetly innocent love affair with a girl who tends to the Baron’s children. His subjective retelling of the story—like the boring, unimaginative lawyer’s writing of the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—allows for the events to remain somewhat speculative. Hindsight offers a reflection, and it becomes clear that there’s a certain purpose for his retelling the story. Given that the film takes place in the years leading up to the rise of Nazism, it obviously suggests allegorical parallels. I’m sure that many critics and scholars have discussed (and will continue to discuss) this microcosmic portrait of pre-Nazi Germany, but regardless of the film’s historiography lesson, it remains to incredibly spooky and moving. Like Haneke’s other films, it features scenes of unimaginable disquietude. As a film about repression, transference, and the nature of evil, it’s nearly perfect.