In a state in which politics are generally considered synonymous with proportional representation (and that is a nice and rather euphemistic way of describing the Austrian “proporz”), it should be taken as a good habit that its main film festival shows great affection towards topics such as “democracy in process” – like the meticulous depiction of endless day-to-day committee meetings, discussions and debates in Frederick Wiseman’s State Legislature, which the Viennale screened four years ago. In the meantime, Wiseman, as we know, has turned to quite another layer of analysing working conditions and proportions, to a haptic cinema that explores the very physical and aesthetic nature of “body politics”. Parts of the Vienna crowd (a people generally prone to Wisemania) were not so amused by the “sea of asses” (© D.K.) in his Venice-premiered Crazy Horse (yes, the famous Paris nightclub). But I think it works perfectly, not despite but because of the decision to basically reconstruct the preparation of one evening show, including a series of performance gigs as such, but also showing some rehearsal sessions in full length. The many “girls” are of former Soviet origin all the way through, yet with an iron effort utilise only the lingua franca of sexy dance, which their choreographer demonstrates in the most perfect manner (with the effect that his verbally and syntactically endless, diffusive French discourse of professionalisme-eroticisme gets mixed up with the tough vocabulary of their Russian ballet training history). Constantly dreaming away in the midst of a world of bottoms (who would mind that anyway?), Wiseman dedicates only a few takes to the women’s leisure time – particularly funny is the scene when they are watching a “best of” Russian ballet stages slip-ups on a tiny TV screen backstage, wearing robes and getting made up, but cracking up about every little tumble their famous ancestors produce – as well as to the more bureaucratic side of the institution. But the female general manager’s attempt to satisfy investors, artistic directors and performers at the same time is sufficient to understanding how much effort is invested not only in physical exercise but also in the balancing act of an old-style entertainment industry. Crazy Horse doesn’t deny but underlines the very sensation it talks about – but with every second focusing on the one and only body part that attracts millions of eyes, the nature of the spectacle erodes into a multi-layered net between money, hardship and desire.

Taking place only a few weeks after the Venice festival and thus “taking over” quite a large number of the eminent Italian festival’s films, including the star line-up Cronenberg-Sokurov-Hui-Lanthimos-Pfaffenbichler-Naderi-To (about which I have written in my other report, but also Chantal Akerman’s stubbornly cumbersome Joseph Conrad lecture La folie Almayer (Almayer’s Folly)  – making sense only within the context of her fascinating oeuvre, shown throughout October at the Filmmuseum as the 2011 Viennale retrospective – Clooney’s The Ides of March, Todd Haynes’ HBO-series Mildred Pierce, the archival revelation of Rossellini’s India, Matri Bhumi (1959), Lav Diaz’s new epos Siglo ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing), the Brazilian semi-doc Girimunho (Swirl) by Helvécio Marins and Clarissa Campolina, the Argentinean night-doc Nocturnos by Edgardo Cozarinsky, or Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s Palácios de Pena (Palaces of Pity), an ambitious neo-surrealist-and-queer-spirited attempt to come to terms with Portugal’s inquisitorial and fascist history (turning out pretty pretentious, if I may say) – taking into account this strong Venice orientation and the general interest in documentaries, it would have been more than self-suggesting to also feature Romuald Karmarkar’s Die Herde des Herrn (The Flock of the Lord) and Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory, the two outstanding German-language docs premiered on the Lido. But, well, that didn’t happen. One could speculate about this ignorant attitude towards Karmakar, a filmmaker usually treated in quite a euphoric way by Austrian film culture.

No need, on the other hand, to speculate about Glawogger, who has not received the same treatment in the Hurch era (only Working Man’s Death was screened, simply because it might have been a bigger problem not to show it). In the case of his prostitute triptych – somehow comparable to Wiseman’s film, as an impressionist and pictorial attempt in linking the questions of body and discourse politics – Glawogger decided to set up distribution for Austria before the Viennale, in order to spare any kind of odd discussion (or dispute). It seems that nowhere else but “back home” Michael Glawogger’s skills are questioned in such scrutiny.

As has been observed before, there is hardly a festival comparable to the Vienna International Film Festival, with its cinephile crowds, its cosy walking distance between venues, and its light-handed mix of bohemian classiness, intellectualism, left culture, free mind and good taste. On the other hand, nowhere else can the (strategic and intuitive) politics of programming be watched as closely as here – without the need of international premieres and the freedom to pick out any thinkable piece of film history, the selection becomes a kind of mirror of an imaginary collective cineaste’s wish list and a reflection of programming tendencies within international festival politics.

This list of best-of-2011-feature films (at least of those that made it out of their countries) displays some fantastic heights – like the exclusivity of Alpis (Alps) specifically, the extraordinariness of the cinema of Yorgos Lanthimos in general, and the worldwide recognition (finally!) of Greek films as a whole. Furthermore, one gets a good impression of who is still running (Kaurismäki, Moretti, von Trier, Sokurov), what is considered world cinema (Nuri Bilge Ceylan/Turkey; Adrian Sitaru/Romania; Asghar Farhadi/Iran; the Dardennes/Belgium; Hong Sang soo/South Korea; Sion Sono /Japan) – and what isn’t. More than one-third of all shown feature films come from the US and France. That some occasional daring glimpses across the established lines are thrown towards South America rather than across the imaginary Iron Curtain, is more than obvious and actually again not much different from general festival practices (there is no one to blame about the – still sad – fact that regions like Eastern Europe seem to shrink down to Romania when it comes to the question of “being represented”; it is simply symptomatic for the current trend, which has totally internalised a certain hegemonic state of affairs).

Among the feature film section these tendencies (be they hidden or obvious) don’t hurt – due to the sheer abundance of great works – my favourite (out of the big entries that I hadn’t seen before) definitely being Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, with its mesmerising pace, its neat, yet delicate allusions to other cinematic pieces, its wonderful actors, its compelling story, its tender brutality and cruel silence, and last but not least with its determined directing, so firmly rooted in the history of genre film. Speaking of which one should mention the small but fine tribute to Hong Kong’s Soi Cheang – now there’s something to deserve the word “daring”: organising a retrospective of someone born in 1972. What a great opportunity to get to know more masterly crafted genre juggling from the director of the unforgettable analysis of paranoia’s abyss, Yi Ngoy (Accident, 2009). It was wonderful to behold the truly brutal beauty of his thriller Gau ngao gau (Dog Bite Dog, 2006) and the weirdness of his hospital-pic Hyn huet ching nin (New Blood, 2002), with its suicidal vampires.

The festival’s affinity with independent cinema occasioned two great experiences, one from the States – Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, a grainy black and white road movie look-alike with dialogues between two grown up siblings so hilarious and wicked that it makes you want to send Woody Allen in to take a lesson in contemporary discourse – the other from the Philippines. In addition to Lav Diaz, who can be considered a Viennese fixed star by now, there was former TV director Remton Siega Zuasola’s first feature length Ang damgo nio Eleuteria (The Dream of Eleuteria), a 90-minute one-shot hand-camera made Cebuano indie about the number one socio-political question on the islands (“Should I stay or should I go?”). With a filmic intuition one does not encounter very often, Siega Zuasola (awarded with Best Southeast Asian Film by the Cinemanila International Film Festival 2010) and his cameraman Christian Linaban keep an admirably discreet closeness to their protagonists, a young woman (Terya) and her family (mother, father, little sister and cousin) who are in the midst of making a decision: whether to leave the Philippines in order to marry an old German, or to stay home, most likely with the man who loves her. The constant movement of this little family group – interrupted and accompanied by a village idiot (rendering the truth like all real fools do – only that this guy really sets the standards for all further jester actors) – functions as the motivation for the specific, narrow topology created by the camera, a slow, retarded walk from the outback to the boat, with digressions full of back-pedalling and hesitation, with a wonderful and light-hearted drift into the shallow water by the silent little sister, and with a wacky intermezzo – the boisterous dancing-cum-cross-dressing at a local festival. What is fascinating above all about Ang damgo nio Eleuteria is the subtle usage of music, underlining the many different moods of a life lived between poverty and self-loyalty, between the sadness of a young woman married off (and thus betrayed by her parents), the hyper-neorealist figure of a mother torn between economic survival and love for her daughter, the grotesque female images of the agent and the cousin (their looks representing the total sell-out of an inner beauty, still immanent to Terya), or the funny little bald father, whose tears in the end, when he sees her off, are at least as touching as Ryan Gosling’s silent will to sacrifice himself (Drive), C.G. Jung’s suppressed desire for Sabina Spielrein (A Dangerous Method), a teenager’s recalcitrant demand to be seen by his father (La gamin au vélo / The Kid with a Bike), or the stubborn little old lady saying goodbye to the world she loved (Tao Jie / A Simple Life).

With no doubt the archival rarity of the Viennale’s 49th edition was Masao Adachi’s Gingakei (Galaxi), the film that opened up Tokyo’s avant-garde temple, the film-theatre Sasoriza, in 1967. Given all the guerrilla rhetoric, which I am about to enforce on this review pretty soon, it is hard to believe that in this case no superlative of political radicalism whatsoever can get anywhere near the truth (accessible only by perception). What a mind breaker. Let’s start with a quotation by the master: “If you can work without any system of regulation or control, then you can increasingly utilise and develop a fresh mode of cinema.” Over the years Mr Adachi, born in 1939, establishing himself as Japan’s front man of experimental underground with Closed Vagina (1963), has proved to be cine-world’s number one in terms of real revolutionist aka terrorist constitution. “A to and fro between politics and cinema, between Trotsky[s]m and Surrealism, between armed struggle and screenplays, between Palestine, Lebanon and Japan, between the day-before-yesterday and today, between beauty and resolve, between the art of eating and that of being a father, such is the risky and precise life of Masao Adachi, the monsieur with the white hair glimpsed in his delusions.” (Jean-Pierre Rehm) (1). Like his 2007 comeback, Yuheisha / Terorisuto (Prisoner / Terrorist), Gingakei (his first feature-length film) is deliberately elliptic and structured as a Möbius strip. It is also fierce and ferocious, highly autobiographical, relentlessly surreal and strictly introspective. It’s the “I” that interests Adachi, in all the metamorphic appearances it can take on, with psychoanalysis, Marxist theory and the genuine Nippon mythology as its backbone.

At this point, it would be highly enlightening to do a little detour across the continents and focus on a rather forgotten part of German avant-garde filmmaking around the same time, originating in the remote city of Ulm (and its then highly creative art school, the hfg – Hochschule für Gestaltung). However, I have only seen one out of four programs of the Epplwoi collective around Reinhard Kahn and Michel Leiner, namely Am Ama Am Amazonas (1968/69), and therefore feel utterly unqualified to go into the depth that these outstanding works deserve. The only thing I can say is that those who were lucky enough to be in the audience got an everlasting impression of the surprisingly humorous nature of Western German avant-garde (of all things …). These guys experimented on every level – living together, filming together, pulling apart narratives, re-enacting trivia, transferring the Bundesdeutsche post-war mentality to an Amazonas which they had built in Frankfurt/Main, only in order to reconstruct it there. If you ever have the chance to see these films (the other one from 1969 was Zwickel auf Bizyckel, the ones from the ‘80s Platzwunder and Rücke vor auf: Frühlingsmorgen) – go for it. If you have the chance to invite the directors and Peter Nau as MC, do so (it’s a very special Germany they are able to revive).

Same goes for René Frölke, collaborator of Thomas Heise (whose Sonnenfinsternis was screened in Vienna, in contradistinction to many other, especially German film festivals, where this quiet study of indigenous daily life in the mountains of northern Argentina was widely ignored). Führung, on the other hand, Frölke’s 37-minute lucky strike about the republic’s president Horst Köhler visiting his art college, the HfG Karlsruhe, has been shown in prominent places (Berlinale, Oberhausen), but still hasn’t got as much attention as it should have got. It is simply hilarious how the renowned professors of this temple of media theory and art philosophy – Peter Sloterdijk and Peter Weibel – prepare for the advent of His Majesty, how they dance in attendance around Him, and how they share their essential knowledge with Him. In accordance with the financial crisis in 2008, when the visit took place, the philosopher’s main topic is the interrelation of economy and art, whereas Weibel just keeps on babbling about the difference between reality and media technologies (ah, one thinks, I must have heard about that before). Frölke follows this honourable little male society on its passage through the college and a few art classes. His camera is versatile and always nearby, evoking the most gorgeous moments of direct cinema. He knows that his “cast” performs by themselves. Watching the Ulm school film by Kahn/Leiner after Führung makes you wonder (and sad) about the domestication processes art and art history have undergone since the ‘60s (after all, teachers back then were people like Alexander Kluge). Lucky enough, today’s behavioural routines have not affected Frölke in the least (after all, there are still teachers like Thomas Heise).

Speaking of watching films in pairs leads me back to the politics of programming. Films often come in pairs and groups here, building up helpful networks of reference. In addition to a well researched and full-blooded program of shorts (including a hidden mini tribute to Ricky Leacock and an overt one to Jean-Marie Straub, festival director Hans Hurch’s personal highlight: the divine Pavese-goes-Buti-woods performance L’inconsonable, Straub’s partly “autobiographical”, Lothringen!-related Un héritier, and last but not least the Kafka deconstruction Schakale und Araber), these delightful dialogues are the major pluses of the festival. The video letter Correspondencia Jonas Mekas – J.L. Guerín, for example, pointed towards Guerin’s contribution to the 2011 Jeonju Digital Project, Recuerdos de una mañana, which was flanked by Claire Denis’ Aller au diable and Straub’s Un héritier. Gingakei, on the other hand, was screened in a combi-pack with Philippe Grandieux’s enlightening Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre résolution – Masao Adachi, a tender approach towards the wild master.

My (and some other people’s) favourite, Thomas Harlan’s Torre Bela (1975), a film about the politics of the redistribution of land and of the power of film, was complemented by José Filipe Costa’s documentary Linha vermelha (Red Line, 2011). Torre Bela. Those were the days, one is tempted to say. The days, when the word revolution still had something sincere about it and being a revolutionary was a tough day-to-day job, demanding (and promising) profound knowledge of regional distinctions on a worldwide scale. The days, when filming and watching “politics in action” was accompanied neither by explanatory notes nor exclamation marks. People would still “read” it (not buy it), because back then, what you did – shooting a film, call it documentary or not – was under constant questioning anyway and the erosive powers of daily struggle could just as well wipe away your “project”.

Thomas Harlan, who had been part of the Italian anti-imperialist resistance of “Lotta continua” and tried his luck with Vietcong and Chile, before reaching Portugal in March 1975, nearly one year after the Carnation Revolution (with the same film team that was supposed to produce a document of the anti-Pinochet-movement in Chile), could thus be considered a true revolutionary and the harshest critic of his own masterpiece (his only film of relative success, and that even in the US). Torre Bela exists in at least four versions (a shorter and longer Portuguese, an American and a French one), proving the necessity of openness when it comes to a “revolution-at-work-in-progress” project of such kind. From shootings to screenings: every decision was in the hands of the people, and so, after an internal screening with the revolutionary heroes of the film, Harlan agreed to cut certain passages, even when Cannes had already booked the film and certainly demanded the uncut version. As always, Harlan refused any kind of compromise with “the system”. The film was still shown in Cannes in 1977 (did I mention it: those were the days).

What becomes more obvious when watching Torre Bela together with Costa’s documentary – and even more obvious when recollecting one of the most fascination talking head films ever made, Christoph Hübner’s Wandersplitter (2006/07), in which Harlan just talks and talks, revealing an unknown territory of intellect, speech orgy, agility and posture (2) – is the fact that right from the beginning Harlan throws overboard the vocabulary (and according ideas) usually surrounding the genre of “documentary”. What we see – the takeover of a country estate in the north of Lisbon, former property of Don Manuel de Bragança, the Duke de Lafões, by a revolutionary cooperative movement; the difficulties of (mental, physical and political) disappropriation and collectivisation; the daily routine of a life in revolution (including the question of who is to cook and clean the dishes); and the clash between an intellectual elite of communists and maoists, some good looking wannabe leaders, their comrades, “the people” (peasants) and the military soldiers’ council – is presented in such a radically direct style that it is very much impossible to get acquainted with the idea that no trace of “authenticity” is left on this saint stock of film. He never intended to record any kind of preexisting revolutionary event, he wanted to initiate it, says Harlan, calling himself a “delegated commissar operating underground” and his film “a Western” devoid of commentaries, made in order to “objectively” manipulate the politically unconscious (ex-farmers, immigrants, drunks) and conspiratorially drive them towards action.

Once in a while, it seems, the camera does become part of a human objective. In the case of Torre Bela this means anything from producing political agency (by all means), unveiling the ambivalent nature of appropriation, or making a distinction – the people around the camera (from hero to anti-hero and zero-hero) know that this director cares more about them than about the film. What a (self-)revelation. What a sincere, clear-sighted, daring and honest project. “Act now – the law will come later”, is one of the film’s unambiguous messages. A good slogan for the fest, too: Act now, the reviews will come later. A festival as a project in progress, we are for it.

Viennale: The Vienna International Film Festival
20 October – 2 November 2011