James Martin Skidmore, Gabriele Mueller, eds. Cinema and Social Change in Germany and Austria. Film and Media Studies Series. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012. ix + 302 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-55458-225-9.
Peter Tscherkassky, ed. Film Unframed: A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema. Austrian Film Music Books Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. 368 pp. $38.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-901644-42-9.
Reviewed by John Warren (Oxford Brookes University)
Published on HABSBURG (April, 2014)
Commissioned by Jonathan Kwan (University of Nottingham)
German and Austrian Film into the Twenty-first Century
For film buffs interested in what films have been and are being produced in Germany and Austria this century, here are two well-edited and comprehensive accounts of recent activity: the first is more concerned with realism on the screen and the second focuses on fantasy. Although film buffs will be interested in these volumes, these books, especially the second one, are in fact aimed more toward specialists. Unless you attend film festivals and conferences, you are unlikely to see many of these films at your local cinema, but some will certainly be available on DVD and possibly the Internet.
The title of the stimulating introductory chapter to Cinema and Social Change in Germany and Austria, edited by James Martin Skidmore and Gabriele Mueller, points to the thrust of the volume: “Cinema of Dissent? Confronting Social, Economic and Political Change in German-Language Cinema.” The book demonstrates the heterogeneity of recent German filmmaking (it began to take shape in early 2009) with close readings of how German, and in several cases Austrian, filmmakers are responding to the tensions resulting from changes in national and European society. Fifteen essays written by scholars from American and Canadian universities (with one contribution each from the United Kingdom and Austria) are divided into four sections: “Challenging Viewing Habits”; “Reassessing and Consuming History”; “Questioning Collective Identities”; and one final piece on Austrian cinema titled “An Insider’s View,” the “insider” being Barbara Pichler, director of Diagonale, the festival of Austrian film in Graz.
In their introduction, the editors raise some interesting questions: “What are the aesthetic strategies used by filmmakers to mobilize imaginaries that conjure up new narratives and construct sites of social belonging? Can artists find new ways of framing the social or do they return to, recycle, or adapt older traditions of screening and seeing the world? How do film artists take into account, comment on, challenge, or play with the contemporary audience’s viewing habits, attitudes, and expectations when those have been reshaped by the media, rapidly evolving technologies, and consumer society?” (p. 5). All of the contributions address these questions and the films discussed reveal the broad sweep of today’s German (and Austrian) filmmakers’ interests.
Chapter 2, Marco Abel’s essay “The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School,” examines the filmmaking movement known as the Berlin school, arguing that “these films constitute a counter-cinema by critically engaging with the neo-liberalization of contemporary Germany” (p. 25). Instead of catering to what is familiar, these films present new images of Germany. We then move on to more specific films and filmmakers. In analyzing Christoph Schlingensief’s Freakstars 3000 (2003), Morgan Koerner’s chapter “Subversions of the Medical Gaze” documents a casting and variety show for disabled participants. Roger Cook’s excellent contribution on Das Leben der Anderen (2006)--one of the few German films you might have seen at your local cinema--makes one long to see the film again. It was winner of the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Alasdair King examines Heimat 3 Chronik einer Zeitwende (2004) from the perspective of time. Joanne Leal in her discussion of three films--Oskar Roehler’s Die Unberührbare (2000), Christian Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit (2000), and Hans Weingartner’s Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (2004)--examines the legacy of 1968 in recent German-language film, evaluating the ideological legacy of the student movement. The theme of young people is taken up by Mary-Elizabeth O’Brien in her essay “Creative Chaos as Political Strategy,” as she analyzes two films, both black comedies: Weingartner’s Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei and Marcus Mittermeier’s Muxmäuschenstill (2004). These films, she argues, “present ‘creative chaos’ as a strategy to protest against the loss of utopian dreams” (p. 133). In this approach to today’s concerns, Adolf Hitler, of course, can hardly be ignored, and Florentine Strzelcyck provides a thorough analysis of Helmut Dietl’s comedy Schtonk (1992), evoking Hitler’s incessant presence in postwar Germany of the early 1980s, while Dani Levy’s more recent film Mein Fūhrer – Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler (2007) is seen as the first feature comedy made in Germany that pokes fun at Hitler, continuing the tradition of such comedies as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). The author, Peter Gölz, views the film as challenging the notions of what constitutes “acceptable” Vergangenheitsbewältigung (dealing with the past) in Germany today.
The first essay in the penultimate subsection, “Questioning Collective Identities,” shows German cinema investigating what Myriam Léger terms the “German fascination for Jew” (p. 203), namely, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Ein ganz gewöhnliche Jude (2006). Jakub Kazecki examines the reflection of how Poles and Poland are perceived in contemporary German film, exploring images of German-Polish relationships in such films as Vanessa Joop’s Vergiss Amerika (2000), Michael Gutmann’s Herz im Kopf (2001), Henner Winckler’s Klassenfahrt (2002), Christoph Hochhäusler’s Milchwald (2003), and Michael Schorr’s Schröders wunderbare Welt (2006). Further and deeper problems are raised in Michael Zimmermann’s essay on Yilmaz Arslan’s film Brudermord (2005), which portrays migrating children as victims within the German host nation, victims who are forced into a marginalized existence on the periphery of society. The final piece of this section, Alice Kuzniar’s “Diasporic Queers,” examines two films: Yüksel Yavuz’s Kleine Freiheit (2003) and Angelina Maccarone’s Fremde Haut (2005).Kuzniar wishes “to complicate globalization studies and queer studies by thinking them together” (p. 245). The first film depicts the burgeoning ties of friendship between two illegal immigrants, one Kurdish and the other African, and the second presents the unhappy story of an Iranian lesbian immigrant.
By now readers of this review with an interest in Austrian film will be wondering what Austrian film is covered in this volume. In view of Austrian cinema’s most recent successes, it is perhaps odd that there are only two chapters on Austrian film. Chapter 3, “The Triumph of Hyperreality,” provides what the author, Sophie Boyer, terms “a Baudrillardian Reading of Michael Haneke’s Cinematic Oeuvre” (p. 43). Unfortunately, this does not take us as far as his prize-winning film Das weisse Band (2009), but it does provide an interesting introduction to Haneke’s development. In the final chapter, “The Construction of Reality,” we return to Austrian filmmaking as Pichler examines, in four relatively brief case studies, some key films showing a realistic, documentary approach. The first, Struggle (2003), by Ruth Mader, is set in contemporary Austria and has a documentary quality. The film revolves around two main protagonists--a young mother from Poland seeking illegal work and a recently divorced real estate agent trying to escape from the emptiness of his life through sadomasochistic sexual encounters. Anja Salomonowitz’s Kurz davor ist es passiert (2007) shows something of the influence of Ulrich Seidl (a key figure in contemporary Austrian cinema, whose recent film Die Wand  is well worth seeing) on younger filmmakers, and we are given an almost documentary examination of the global phenomenon of trafficking in women. Unser täglich Brot (2005) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, in contrast, is a documentary account of the world of industrialized food production and high-tech agriculture, while The End of the Neubacher Project (2007) by Marcus J. Carney takes us into a totally different universe. It is an attempt by the director to examine both Austria’s Nazi past and his own family history.
The majority of the contributions have endnotes and all have an excellent and wide-ranging list of references. The filmography provides a list of every film mentioned and the book has both a thorough general index and several useful illustrations. Cinema and Social Change in Germany and Austria will be an invaluable addition to every department of film studies.
As we approach the second volume under review Film Unframed: A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema edited by Peter Tscherkassky, we might do well to remember the somewhat enigmatic ending to the chapter on Michael Haneke in the first volume: “America should consider itself warned: beware of Austrians bearing gifts” (p. 54). Certainly, some of the “gifts” in this second volume under review are pretty strong stuff. I suspect that few of the films discussed in this volume will have been seen by readers of this review--they will be screened at specialist film festivals and conferences--but for the cineaste with a special interest in the avant-garde, this book with essays on Austrian cinema going back to the 1950s will certainly be worth reading. It pays eloquent tribute to the manner in which a traditionally conservative Austria has both respected and supported its filmmakers, and it also places Austrian film in the context of many Austrian writers and artists. Eighteen authors from across the continents contribute twenty-five essays of which six are by the editor Tscherkassky (these include a stimulating introduction and thought-provoking final chapter, “The Framework of Modernity”). The contributions have been translated by Eve Heller and Steve Wilder from the German, and by Adrian Martin and Fabrice Leroy from the French.
The indefatigable and extremely knowledgeable editor notes: “This book is the first of its kind to present a condensed history of Austrian avant-garde cinema” (p. 8). With its 374 closely written pages “condensed” is perhaps an optimistic term. The editor suggests that one of their objectives is to inspire further research, and to that end an impressively comprehensive appendix containing biographies, filmographies, and bibliographical information has been provided. The book is well illustrated with stills from the pictures under review. Introductory essays illuminate the prehistory of this tradition, as well as the various directions during its different phases of development. Of course, within this general framework, entirely individualistic aesthetic forms evolved. In one essay, Adrian Martin pays a moving tribute to Austria as “a country that, culturally speaking, respects its avant-garde filmmakers, present, past and future” (p. 11). And he is followed by Tscherkassky’s “An Initial Mapping of an Expanding Territory,” an excellent survey of landmarks from the whole scene starting with the sixteen minutes of Mosaik im Vertrauen (1955) and ending with Der Phototermin (2010). Stefan Grisseman, in “Countdown to Zero. Before the Avant-Garde: Austrian Visionary Film 1951-1955,” writes of the early days and the emergence of Peter Kubelka and Ferry Radax. He also mentions the significance of a Viennese locale called the Strohkoffer, which opened in 1951 in the cellar of the Loos Bar, a locale that had become the meeting place for the Art Club. This club had been founded in 1947 by a circle of artists, including Arik Brauer, Ernst Fuchs, Albert Paris Gütersloh, Rudolf Hausner, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and Maria Lassnig, all, of course, painters and key members of the Austrian avant-garde.
We then move on to a further eighteen chapters presenting the work of individual filmmakers, beginning with Tscherkassky’s eloquent tribute, “The World According to Kubelka.” He sees Kubelka’s Mosaik im Vertrauen, described in some detail, as the first Austrian avant-garde film. The next essay, “The Halted Sun of Ferry Radax,” is also by Tscherkassky. A seminal moment for Radax was seeing Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), screened in Vienna in 1950, and this I can certainly understand, for I saw the film in Paris that same year and have never forgotten it. The essay provides a detailed description of the key Radax film Sonne halt! (1960). Discussion of other filmmakers of greater and lesser importance follows: Grissemann introduces the work of Kurt Kren, Norbert Pfaffenbichler provides analysis of Marc Adrian’s work, and Tscherkassky writes about Ernst Schmidt Jr. (a largely unrecognized filmmaker). Grissemann returns with a piece on Hans Scheugl, while Maureen Turim looks at Valie Export and her extreme sexual imagery. The critic Maya McKechneay argues that the Austrian painter Lassnig influenced an entire generation of animation filmmakers. Bert Rebhandl examines the films of Dietmar Brehm; Jonathan Rosenbaum analyzes the work of Lisl Ponger; and Maureen Turim (professor of film at the University of Florida) sees the films of Tscherkassky as “works of dreams and shadows.” The long list continues with Christa Blüminger on Mara Mattuschka; Livio Belloï (from the University of Liège) on Gustav Deutsch, whom he describes as a “visual thinker” (p. 233); Steve Anker (currently dean of the School of Film at the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia) on Martin Arnold; Andréa Picard on Josef Dabernig; Christoph Huber on Pfaffenbichler; Nicole Brenez (professor at the Sorbonne) on Siegfried A. Frühauf, and finally Steve Bates on the work of Michaela Grill.
In addition to these meticulous investigations into individual filmmakers, there are two further chapters well worth reading: Hans Scheugl’s “Expanded Cinemas Exploding” and Pichler’s “Avant-Garde Now: Notes on Contemporary Film Art.” Scheugl’s essay examines the development of Austrian film into a more international context during the 1960s, while Pichler takes us forward to the 1990s and as far as 2009, examining a range of filmmakers, such as Albert Sackl, Georg Wasner, Johann Lurf, Manuel Knap, Dariusz Kowalski, and several women filmmakers, including Lotte Schreuber, Annja Krautgasser, Michaela Schwentner, Carola Dertnig, and Maria Petschnig.
Tscherkassky’s closing remarks, “The Framework of Modernity,” provide some interesting thoughts on cinema and modernism. He offers a stimulating and thought-provoking conclusion to what is clearly a wide-ranging investigation of a wealth of innovative talent. This second volume has many illustrations and, as mentioned above, forty pages of biographies, filmographies, and bibliographies, together with an index of films, index of persons, and details of contributors. It will certainly provide an invaluable reference source for every department of film studies.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/habsburg.
John Warren. Review of Skidmore, James Martin; Mueller, Gabriele, eds., Cinema and Social Change in Germany and Austria and
Tscherkassky, Peter, ed., Film Unframed: A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema.
HABSBURG, H-Net Reviews.
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