A short festival of Austrian film gets underway on 23rd March at London’s Ciné Lumière, featuring a couple of unexpectedly heart-warming stories.
The first watchAUT festival of Austrian film – which took place a couple of years ago pre-pandemic – may have slipped under your radar, but the second one is about to get underway at London’s Ciné Lumière, and is a film festival which describes itself as dedicated to “the best new and recent films to emerge from Austria”.
Opening on 23rd March and running until 26th March, the compact festival is presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum London, in cooperation with the Austrian Film Institute and Austrian Films. WatchAUT mixes old and new and features a special presentation of Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Frau im Mond with a live piano accompaniment.
The opening gala film is the UK premiere of The Fox, a film with a very personal background for director Adrian Goiginger. It portrays Goiginger’s great-grandfather Franz Streitberger (Simon Morzé), a motorcycle courier in the Austrian Army during the Second World War. A quiet and introverted soldier abandoned by his family as a young boy, Franz adopts a wounded fox cub who becomes his constant companion, even during dangerous rides under bombardment during the war. The Fox is neither a war film nor a nature film; its main theme is how this introverted farmhand finds that this bond with a living creature is a gateway to deeper human relationships which have been lacking in his life.
The curiosity, or perhaps the point where the film is understandably weaker, is that it glances over the fact that this solder, who signed up on a whim because he had no family or other source of income, was eventually fighting on the side of Hitler’s National Socialists. Although we don’t see any fighting, and only the aftermath of some bombing raids, it is somewhat jarring to see a huge swastika being waved over the requisitioned French house which has become military headquarters when Franz is portrayed as such a gentle soul. Of course, if you are telling your own great-grandfather’s story it’s understandable that you might want to avoid drilling too deeply into the more complicated areas of his life.
Nevertheless, The Fox does end up being a bit of a tearjerker at the end, and well done to Simon Morzé who has the tricky task of conveying the inner emotions of a quiet introvert to the viewing audience.
Continuing the military theme but in more contemporary times, Eismayer, also based on true events, tells a story of closeted homosexuality and toxic masculinity in the Austrian army. Charles Eismayer (Gerhard Liebmann) is renowned among recruits for being the most obnoxious and feared officer at the training camp. He bullies the new intake, is constantly an Angry Man and takes little pleasure in anything other than a cigarette and his job. But the appearance of an openly gay trainee Mario Falak (Luca Dimic) among the ranks causes an emotional upheaval for the officer, for which he is unprepared.
The acting of the two leads is what carries Eismayer. The constant haranguing and humiliation of the recruits becomes overwhelming after a while, and one does start to ask how anyone can live their lives in such constant bitterness. The answer, of course, is self-hatred. But Liebmann’s portrayal of Eismayer sees the hard shell eventually, almost unwillingly, begin to crack, and Dimic’s Falak is the total opposite – not only openly gay but also of Bosnian heritage, and so confronting both queer and racial prejudice in the military head-on. Falak represses nothing, demanding his place among his peers in a way that Eismayer has spent his adult life avoiding.
The final day of watchAUT ends with a new sci-fi thriller from Magdalena Lauritsch, Rubikon. Filmed mostly in English, it has an international cast featuring Austrian Julia Franz Richter, Ukrainian/Israeli Mark Ivanir, and Brit George Blagden. The three are crew who have been marooned on a space station above Earth when humanity’s gradual environmental destruction of the planet finally culminates in a toxic fog which breaks all contact between Earth and the satellite. The crew has a potential but not definite solution and has to decide whether to risk their own lives to save any survivors on the surface.
It’s always great to see science fiction films which are not US-centred, and this one also has the topical advantage of exploring the consequences for future generations of not addressing environmental issues now. (Rubikon is set in 2056, just over 30 years from now, a year in which the majority of the film’s viewers would hope to still be alive, one would imagine.)
Rubikon is definitely a serious science-fiction film, attempting to address relevant questions on an important matter. The discussions about what to do don’t really go deep enough, however, and the worthiness of it all, unfortunately, becomes a little dull before the end. But full credit for trying to do something a little out of the ordinary with the genre.
I always feel it’s worth supporting more compact film festivals where possible – the Austrian film industry may be relatively small, but watching releases at festivals such as watchAUT hopefully means more funding can be given to future films – and if every now and again something like Austria-produced Great Freedom emerges, then that’s a win.