Austrian films have a reputation for being quite disturbing. This approach to filmmaking goes well with the dark humor and sarcasm that Austrians are known for. But where does this pleasure in reveling in the abysses of the soul come from? I decided to find out from the filmmakers themselves.
For visitors, Vienna seems like a dream spun out of icing. Even I felt that way when I moved here. The capital and its horse-drawn carriages carry tourists and the spirit of a world long gone into the 21st century. The same goes for the beautiful countryside with villages that remain virtually untouched by the vices of modern times. When I wrapped my mind around the dialect and vocabulary, I was able to enjoy Austrian films and TV series as well.
That’s when I noticed the fine cracks in the porcelain paradise.
Austrian Feel Bad Cinema
If you witness a middle-aged insurance agent locking up a 10-year-old in his basement (Michael, 2011, Markus Schleinzer) or a whole family committing suicide after ripping every trace of civilized life to pieces (The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke, 1989), chances are you’re watching an Austrian film. Many forms of depravity are depicted in these films, and even comedies are spiked with pitch-black humor and cynicism.
I couldn’t wrap my head around the contrast of Austrian Cinema to the peaceful life on the countryside and the lavish balls and operas in Vienna. But, well, I’ve seen enough garden gnomes during my childhood in Western Germany to know that kitsch is international. I can’t really tell if it’s a part of the Austrian soul – clichés may or may not have roots in reality – but it could have an impact on the Austrian state of mind.
Suppression of Feelings
I started to feel this way when I read what playwright Thomas Bernhard wrote about his hometown, Salzburg:
“My hometown is in reality a mortal disease into which its inhabitants are born and drawn, and if they do not leave at the right time, they will (…) either suddenly commit suicide or will perish, directly or indirectly, slowly and miserably (…).
Cheerful chap, right? Bernhard described his upbringing in a boarding school during the Nazi era, years prior to the heyday of Austrian “feel bad cinema.” But does he still capture the Austrian state of mind?
“Austria positions itself as a rich and happy country, but tells depressing stories. That is a quite downbeat attitude. Either Austria isn’t as rich and happy after all, or we have found a strange comfort in the dark shadows of the soul. I’m sure that this is also why we love black humor so much,” says Paul Harather, director of India (1993). His film tells the story of a friendship between two men that ends, what else, in tragedy.
For me, to acknowledge the fact that all good things eventually come to a terminal end is the root of black humor. But what about sarcasm, another strong player in Austrian comedy culture?
Cruelty Is a Laughing Matter
The feeling that their humor is fundamentally different (and better) than their German neighbors’ is part of the national identity of Austria. But, as Wolfgang Ritzberger, a film producer (The Best of All Worlds, Adrian Goiginger, 2017) puts it, “A clown isn’t automatically a funny human being.” He stresses that the suicide rate in Austria is quite high, and that Austrians might have a habit of hiding mental abysses behind charm and smiles.
Even more, what passes as humor can be pretty cruel at times. But is cruelty part of Austrian humor?
Georg Kreisler comes to mind, a Jewish-Austrian cabarettist who rose to fame in the mid-50s for his darkly funny and ambiguous songs. Among them is Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, a song about the pleasures of poisoning the little vermin during a Sunday stroll with his lady friend. Not humanly cruel, but quite disturbing, as are some lyrics of Ludwig Hirsch, a well-known singer-songwriter, who committed suicide in a Viennese hospital. His song I lieg am Ruckn (I’m Lying on my Back) tells a story of being buried “four meters below the surface,” obviously dead, but alive enough to describe the harrowing experience.
The Desire for Bleakness
These examples are surreal, but on screen, Austrian filmmakers offer a bleak view on some rather serious topics. This is true for Michael Haneke, Austria’s most famous director and winner of the foreign-language Oscar of 2012. His first films were successes – not always at the box offices, but with international critics, who appreciated the naturalistic depiction of psychological and emotional struggle that is typical for “feel bad cinema.”
Dr. Veit Heiduschka, the producer of nearly all films by Michael Haneke, has never heard of the term. He told me that despite the fame, the Austrian “psychological film” has a higher standing with international critics than in Austria itself. Even more descriptive, he told me a story of the times when he and Haneke brought their fourth film, Funny Games (1997) to international festivals. Here, Haneke told him to “watch out for the Austrian journalists. We’ve had three successes before, they won’t permit it a fourth time. The Austrian soul won’t allow it.”
He was right, but it didn’t matter. The film was sold to over 50 countries and became their first international hit.
A Jammed Money Machine
After conversations with filmmakers, I had the feeling that Austrians don’t care that much about the high opinion that international critics have of Austrian Cinema. It certainly doesn’t show in the way the subsidies for film work. Paul Harather tells me that an overflowing pool of young and creative talent from the film academy is looking desperately to realize their ideas. But since there isn’t enough money around, most of these projects don’t happen, end of story.
Wolfgang Ritzberger confirms that there just isn’t enough funding for film in Austria. For better or worse, he says, Austria is totally dependent on Germany to co-finance production, so German public broadcasters have a big say on which projects get funded and which don’t. This supremacy of German public broadcasters is why the German film feels better, he goes on, tongue-in-cheek – it’s a bunch of TV editors deciding which scripts get funded in hopes of satisfying primetime viewers, not an audience of cinema lovers.
An Uncertain Future
Andreas Kilb, a German film critic, once said that Austrians get prizes at festivals where Germans are not even invited. But in today’s economic reality, I have the impression that Austria is sitting on a treasure chest of talent unvalued in collective memory.
After my descent into the cinematic heart of darkness, I certainly agree with Heiduschka: When German friends ask him about Vienna, he tells them:
“Vienna is a morbid city, but it’s on rotten wood where orchids grow.