No Name City

March 21–26, 2006

After the screening of Florian Flicker’s No Name City (2006), basically everybody at the Diagonale’s opening agreed that this tall verité tale about the internal troubles’n’struggles in a Viennese Western Town was a more than fitting metaphor for the festival, its development, as well as that of Austrian cinema – just how much self-deprecating irony was involved in the choice of that particular work, and how much chance, i.e., lack of self-reflection, nobody ventured to say…

Well, one thing is certain: Flicker’s agreeably likeable while highly uneven essay in documentary filmmaking provided the Main Melody for the Diagonale ’06: Waterloo and Robinson sang “Das ist meine kleine Welt”, a fitting tune for a festival – and a film culture – struggling with provincial attitudes and global market aspirations.

Since 2003, the year the splendid era Dollhofer and Wulff ended, the Diagonale has been in trouble.

First, in 2004, it was under siege, so to speak, as Franz Morak, the not exactly beloved Austrian minister of culture, put his head to reinventing – and thereby gaining some control over – the festival, which had been a thorn in his eye since the centre-right/way-right coalition came into power in Austria and those nasty, disobedient film folks in Styrian Graz actually rose and took the piss at them, with the directorate leading the chant. Also, like all those Neoliberals, he wanted to have a festival that sucked industry-ass (with no industry around to speak of…) while representing the new Austrian movie might in the world in the way these Neoliberals consider correct i.e. glittery, loud-mouthed and toothless, and political only in the sense that it supports the ruler’s aims (working the Osterweiterung, in this case). For this was just about the time that Austrian cinema, thanks to the successes of Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl, Michael Glawogger, Barbara Albert etc., could establish itself for good and sure on the international arthouse market as a reliable as well as recognisable force to reckon with. But something of a miracle happened: the usually divided – well, dipshit bitchy with each other… – Austrian film scene united (in essence…) and rose together against these plans. They organised a counter-Festival – aka the Real or Originale Diagonale and by now fondly remembered as the Battle Diagonale – and raised such a shitstorm that in the end, the Other Festival didn’t even take place. A lot of people looked very, very stupid.

The following year, a new directorate – after the soviet-style solution found for the ’04 edition – had to be selected. Now, it would have been difficult for everybody to follow Dollhofer and Wulff, who are as charismatic as they’re smart and, above all, had been able to find/craft a perfect shape for the festival where all parts were felt to be in harmony. Put simply, it worked, folks loved it, and it sure did what it was supposed to do on the national as well as the international stage. Which, again, for their successors meant that every change in the concept had to be thought through very carefully, never change a winning team and all that. But, well, that’s exactly what the new directorate – a committee-tinkered triarchy – did, and didn’t do well. That the three didn’t really see things the same way was probably one reason (which lead to… “misunderstandings” in the organisation, and finally the search for a new directorate). The other reason was that, after this exercise in unity, folks obviously thought that this new e pluribus unum-state had to be reflected in the festival, and everybody should participate.

The problems this mind-set leads to are, maybe, best explained via the changes in the core sidebar: the retrospective section. In the Dollhofer and Wulff era, there was usually one somewhat bigger monographic retrospective dedicated to an auteur from a country somewhere close whose work might serve as an inspiration for the locals – a.o. Christian Schocher, Roland Klick, Volker Koepp, Zelimir Zilnik…. – plus a “historical program”, filling about three or four slots at first, on an aspect of Austrian film history done either by das kino-coop or by synema (first, it was only one of them; then, they tended to sport both, thereby doubling the amounts of slots: das kino-coop usually did something on aspects of Austrian cinema inside the country while synema mainly works on the question of cinema and exile). Which was a perfect solution: the retrospective with its focus on one filmmaker functioned as a kind of backbone as well as a precise point-of-reference for the festival as a whole – politique des auteurs in dialectic practice – plus it opened the festival up, world-wise, while the historical program, which usually had a certain political edge, opened up just the kind of cultural/political mindscapes, spaces needed for sensible discussions, and all that.

Now, the new directorate got rid of the auteur-retrospective – and thereby, one could say, of a sense of individual responsibility – and instead went back to something the Diagonale did in its Salzburg–period in the early ‘90s: they presented works from a film production culture considered to be similar to Austria. In 2005 this was Turkey, basically a smart choice considering that Turkish cinema’s considered (luke)hot, and so is the Turkish art scene (for whatever reason), plus, looking at the “anxieties” about a possible membership of Turkey in the European Union, screening sense about that country is politically a wise thing to do. This year, they featured Denmark, the evil of Euro-artsy; but, well considering that the Danes are by now as established on the arthouse market as the Austrians (actually, it’s the other way around as the Scandinavians were there first) this choice made sense somewhat, especially as one of the major conceptual changes decided on for ‘05, prompted probably by the desire to accommodate those who’re advocating a more “audience-orientated” approach to film subsidising/distribution (i.e. those who use the word “industry”), was to be more “appreciative” of the local film culture’s “mercantile aspects” as well as the “craft” as such.

But this wasn’t the only change in that section: the “historical” part became something of a free-for-all, as several institutions, initiatives etc. now are allotted a certain amount of slots where, well, they can show stuff. Which in and of itself isn’t a problem – while that they aren’t asked to follow a certain concept certainly is. So, instead of a multitude, demoscopic realism rules, a mindset in which it’s okay if things don’t really work together and create a sense more productive as long as everybody is happy (on his own)… Which, again, happened all over the festival.

Put simple and a bit polemical: instead of providing a vision, or at least working at it, the Diagonale these days solely mirrors the state of things – it’s mainly a reflection. Which might be too passive a stance if one’s interest is community building.

Michael Haneke picked up the festival’s main award in the fiction feature-category for Caché (2005), which wasn’t too surprising considering the amount of awards it has already received plus the generally awkward state of the Austrian narrative in 2005, with the only major work in that category, Michael Glawogger’s mighty Berlinale-competition entry, Slumming (2006), not being shown at the festival due to the producer’s whim – next year, then – while Peter Kern’s masterpiece of a no budget-Brecht’o’Pinoy-melodrama, Donauleichen (2005) – Fassbinder cum Schroeter on Bernal in homage to La Jelineck – is far too somewhere else special, at least these days, to be hailed by the middlebrow – but should one excuse them if they don’t seem to work towards a world more sensible?

An honorary mention went to the trio of films coop99 had on offer: Golden Bear-winner Grbavica (2006) by Jasmila Zbanic, Schläfer (2005) by Benjamin Heisenberg and Spiele Leben (You Bet Your Life, 2005) by Antonin Svoboda – three works which, considered together, perfectly express the malaise, the political defeatism of contemporary cinema and therefore culture, here (things would have looked differently if Slumming, which was co-produced by coop99, had been there… but that it wasn’t there just fits…).

On the one hand, there’s the letter-of-indulgence-cinema of Grbavica which (dis!)engages viewers by telling them exactly what they know even if they didn’t know it like that. On the other hand, there’s Schläfer with its excess of ellipses which are supposed to create a sense of unease, paranoia, but only lead to the desolate, quasi-(undigested)Haneke’ian desinvoltura of It-could-be-this-and-that-and-this-that-and-that-this-as-well(-but-it-is-obvious-what-it-is-anyway-so-it-does-not-matter); and there’s Spiele Leben with its descent into possibility/probability-hell ending in a vulgar meta-Wurscht!(-but-it-is-obvious-what-it-means-anyway-so-it-does-not-matter – Wurscht again!). In the end, both films are sunk by the same problems: a deep disdain for the concrete, precise realities of society, for which reason their respective concepts always remain concepts and never become more, as well as a fatal disinterest in their characters which are always held at the level of ciphers/chiffres so as to not mess up the concept with some idiosyncrasies of their own. In a certain way, all three films are anti-enlightening, befitting an age of brut paranoid politics in which only one thing is certain: life ain’t safe. But what life? Well, life you know… – no, I don’t.

Notes on Film 02

Tellingly enough, one of the greatest films of the Diagonale ‘06 was, among other things, a kind of meta-critique of the politics at work in stuff like Spiele Leben: Austrian e-avant-garde-master Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s feature film-debut Notes on Film 02, a reconsideration of Robert Frank’s Antonioni-homage OK End Here (1963) using instruments from the arsenal of the Viennese School. In a certain way, Notes on Film 02 is the antithesis to Spiele Leben: following an ordinary disenchanted middle-class couple through its morning routines into the woman’s disappearance into architecture and modernism and nothingness, Pfaffenbichler creates aplenty of emotions and thoughts by following a carefully chosen metrum, working his way through a very precise pattern of rules too difficult, complex and varied to explain here – it is, above all, a work about possibilities of/and change – while Svoboda suffocates his characters, a compulsive gambler and a junkieuse, and lays moral waste to the world by forcing them into his concept, pummelling them into submission to his one idea which is six different endings for the six possibilities of a dice’s throw (and forget about Mallarmé and the revolution, ye old Straub’ians…).

The beauty of plenty by multiplication, of creation through careful variations was also expressed by two more major films that premiered in Graz this year: Albert Sackl’s Vom Innen; von außen (2006) and Edgar Honetschläger’s Immergrün und die Moderne – The Audience. Sackl, as he’s wont to, animatocrafted a contemplation of space and time, frame by frame, with his naked presence multiplying around and around, spinning and wombling from his/their homemade black box-sanctuary out into the four seasons and back, with ever more Sackls as time progresses and ever weirder Sackl-bodies; Vom Innen; von außen is a perfect continuation of Sackl’s earlier works – and praised be that Sackl’s back, for too many of his friends/generation – Bernhard Schreiner, Kerstin Czmelka, Georg Wasner – have either stopped making films at all or changed disciplines and became engaged with art, with only Thomas Draschan still haemorrhaging celluloid-challenges.

Honetschläger, again, re-synthesises his multi-disciplinary genius – artist, painter, performer – into a systematic exploration of the ideas of space and layers, reality and artifice, presence and ghostliness in the videocinemathographic image; which is also a pretty quirky essay in split-screen story(not)telling (-two/twin images… could this be seen as a meta-companion piece to über-underachiever Kathrin Resetarit’s weirdly unique creature in-between-genres, Ich bin Ich (2006)?… meaning aplenties by sensing/imagining the variations in the world….); which is also… lots of other stuff, as this ‘50s-avant-garde-redux-into-postmodernism creation is quite aplenty. That neither Pfaffenbichler nor Sackl nor Resetarits nor Honetschläger won anything except the love of a few shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Workingman’s Death

Back at the awards and on to the festival’s true scandal (of sorts, as nay really complained): the award for Best Documentary, handed out this edition for the first time – up till ‘05, there was only a Grand Diagonale Prize which could be awarded to either a fiction or a documentary feature-length film. Realistically speaking, there were, quality-wise, only two films eligible for the award (with Erwin Wagenhofer’s ‘05-box-office-surprise We Feed the World as the dark horse, for purely commercial reasons): Michael Glawogger’s enormous panorama-tract on the 20th century, Workingman’s Death (2005), and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s just about equally awe-inspiring science fact-object-in-time Unser tägliches Brot (Our Daily Bread, 2005). Craft- as well as vision-wise, Glawogger and Geyrhalter are so far above the rest that only a disaster could happen, and did: as the award was ex aequo’d to Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s cozy going-through-the-feel-good-motions-verité Babooska (2005) and Arash T. Riahi’s rather clumsy, feely Exile Family Movie (2006). Now, while there’s nothing to be said per se against Babooska– seen on its own, as such, this miniature about the daily struggle of a travelling circus somewhere in Italy is absolutely agreeable, if one goes for the small form and a certain provincial charm – something has to be said against Exile Family Movie. For one thing, Arash is not a good filmmaker and certainly not a deep thinker, and everybody knows it – he’s simply something of a character with a camera; meaning: the Arash-machine runs on sympathy alone – rumour has it that without editor exceptionel Dieter Pichler, Arash would’ve been lost in the hours and days of material he amassed over the years and used for Exile Family Movie. Which makes him the polar opposite of Glawogger and Geyrhalter, two total filmmakers of rather peculiar and truly unique genius: people with a vision and the ability to realise them. But even Pichler wasn’t able to get some depth into, some surplus out of the material (and maybe he shouldn’t): Exile Family Movie tells in the most straightforward manner imaginable the story of a family reunion of the special kind – after decades of videoletter-exchanges, Arash’s family in Austrian exile meets with members of other branches on a “pilgrimage” to Mecca – with all characters safely in place and everybody behaving just the way one expects them to – the spunky sister; the USAfied relative from the States; the dignified, understanding, and sometimes quietly proto-subversive elderly ladies from Iran; etc. – all of which makes the film play like some Lalaland family-weepy hacked together by a Chris Columbus-somesuch.

Now, why was Exile Family Movie so popular if it’s craft-wise shaky, content-wise rather flat, and somewhat ugly to look at (well, home video ordinaire)? Because its benign feel-good-with-the-obviously-suffering-simplemindedness is politically obvious and safe, WYSIWYG: bare the ambiguities and questions and doubts expressed and raised by Glawogger as well as Geyrhalter, whose visions of the world are too complex, too choked with ambivalences and obviously (well, inside the current system…) unsolvable contradictions to be easily digested and shat out – not to mention the dialectical beauty of Glawogger’s film – a paean to 35mm – and the cool, opaque wide-angle-plan-sequence glory of Geyrhalter’s HD-work, glaring reminders of the fact that things ain’t simple, and that there’s more to every moment and movement than meets the eye: there’s meaning in the world.

Life in Loops (a megacities rmx)

How much meaning, in fact, is evidenced by another unique project that premiered in Graz: Life in Loops (a megacities rmx) (2006) by Timo Novotny, like Pfaffenbichler a young master of the Austrian e-avant-garde who went feature-wards with this project. In essence, Novotny took Michael Glawogger’s monumental Megacities (1998) and remixed it with footage of his own to soundscapes by the Sofa Surfers. Because of Glawogger’s enthusiams for the project, Novotny could go way further than he’d originally envisioned: instead of only the film Megacities, Novotny had everything Glawogger and DP Wolfgang Thaler shot for the film to work with, if only on video, and instead of having to use his own Super-8-stuff, Thaler went for free with Novotny to Tokyo to shoot some more material. The result of Novotny and the Sofa Surfers’ effort is pretty mesmerising as well as intellectually super stimulating. On the one hand, Life in Loops (a megacities rmx) lacks the immediate social/political power and depth of Glawogger’s work, on the other hand, it finds strange new meanings and e-/motions in the spaces vu par Glawogger and Thaler – actually, it seems to turn the material inside out: while Glawogger’s film also talked about life-as-perfomance(-under-working-conditions), Novotny talks about performance-as-life (remembered). In its video-paleness, Life in Loops (a megacities rmx) is something like Megacities’ xerox-Art-ghost, an Other all its own.

But back to the politics of the already-answered non-questions. To give a simple example of the problem at hand: after the screening of Unser tägliches Brot, a docu-prose poem about Euro-food fabrication and the ordinary surrealism of Taylorism, somebody do-goodishly thanked Geyrhalter for making people realise how terrible things are – while nobody in the audience rose to the challenge when Geyrhalter started to talk about the necessity of this kind of food as most people (even) in our cultural sphere are too poor to afford better kinds of food, not to mention that better food seems to be less important than the latest mobile… So, yeah, it’s easier to feel some sympathy for the sad fate of an Iranian family than to face the poverty within/around, it is easier to get lost in the melancholic realist nevermore of a circus than deal with the different happinesses in the world, and it is easier to laugh with a spunky doctoress not taking shit from some tradition (Arash’s sister) than to know whether to laugh or not at the bizarre sight of a dead fish rapturously wiggling while vacuumed of his innards – besides the fact that it’s safer to feel for an Iranian émigré talking about Iranians than to synch with an Austrian moving freely amongst Ukrainians, Javaians, Haussa, Pashtuns, PRChinese and Germans, or an Austrian re-creating the true EUro-mindset of a globalised production space where it doesn’t matter whether a chicken was made in Denmark or Hungary as it’s the exact same chicken.

Just the same way that it’s safer to be paranoid about the world as one’s always right (Schläfer) or to be just a jest of God (Spiele Leben). Just that there’s no community in paranoia and chance.

About The Author

Olaf Möller is a Cologne-born and -based film critic, writer and curator.