A couple of weeks ago I happened to have a chat about the Austrian cinema with my American seatmate on the bus. The first and the only thing that crossed his mind was “The Sound of Music”, which is, by the way, not even an Austrian production. Some critics decry the Austrian film scene and even go as far as labeling Vienna as the “capital of feel – bad cinema”. However, the Austrian cinema is doing far more than just resting on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s laurels. Since the early 2000’s, Austrian film has undergone a tremendous change and increased its international reach thanks to its growing participation in global film festivals. In order to seize this evolution, we are spotlighting the particularities of the Alpine state’s independent film scene.

In Austria, it’s usually comedies that top the box office charts (“Hinterholz 8” or “MA2412 – Die Staatsdiener” to mention just a few), which draws from the historical context of the country’s film industry. The end of World War II  set the course for the development of an Austrian film scene independent from its big German brother. As a result, the Austrian film industry professionals put their focus on comedies (“The White Horse Inn” (1960), “Happy End am Wörthersee” (1964)) as well as on patriotic films (“Echo der Berge” (1954), “Heimatland” (1955)). Sticking to a rather shallow tone, these movies tended to strengthen Austrian national pride in the aftermath of annexation and years of war. The 60’s were not a high point for Austrian Cinema as not only did local star Romy Schneider emigrate to France, but the production of patriotic movies also reached a point of saturation.

The Austrian cinema only earned international recognition in the early 70’s, when a new generation of avant-garde filmmakers tackled social issues and defied the conventions of traditional cinema. The movement of this watershed moment is also known as “The New Austrian Film”, for which the movie “Moss on the Stones” (1968) has become a strong symbol. It deals with two former friends who spend their weekend together in an old castle and pit their perspectives on reality with those of the castle’s inhabitants. Documentaries (“The dream of Sandino” (1980)), dramatic features (“Mephisto” (1981), “The Student Gerber” (1981)), and experimental films continued to spread in the 80’s and this is above all due to public subvention. Those productions met great success when they hit the international film scene, whereas back in Austria they turned out to be box office flops.

When it comes to the current state of the Austrian film, the mentioned divide in tastes can still be observed. Thus, internationally awarded Austrian films (often screen adaptions of books) don’t generate much box office revenue in the Alpine state itself. Nevertheless, films like “The Piano Teacher” (2001) or “Hidden” (both directed by Michael Haneke) garnered a mountain of international awards.

Other recent successes of films that made it beyond the Austrian borders include the documentaries “We Feed the World” (2005) and “Darwin’s Nightmare” (2004), as well as the oscarized dramatic feature “The Counterfeiters” (2007). This movie tells the story of a Jewish Slovak typographer who forged birth certificates in order to save Jews from deportation.

The international rebirth of Austrian cinema is even more impressive considering the fact that the country’s film production income has continued to decrease in the 2000’s. The lack of public aid is also one of the reasons that made Austrian filmmakers set up their own small production companies (for instance “Amour Fou Film Production” or “Allegro”) that stand for great films such as “We Feed the World”.

What about the preference of Austrians for comedies, an inherent part of the country’s film identity? It seems that recent productions skillfully bridge the gap between the comedic genre and more profound films. Let’s mention three films by Murnberger: “Komm, süßer Tod” (2002), “Silentium” (2004) and “The Bone Man” (1999).
Dear reader, we hope that this article made you realize that the Austrian film market’s output is more than some singing Heidi of “The Sound of Music”. The best ambassador of the Austrian cinema is nowadays without doubt Michael Haneke whose film “Amour” just won a Golden Globe in the category “Best Foreign Language Film”. You should also check out the drama film “Paradise: Love” by Ulrich Seidl, which is now in  theatres and tells the story of Austrian sex tourism in Kenya.

Verena Jirgal

 

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