Zauberer (Sebastian Brauneis, 2018)

By Dennis Vetter 

Maybe Zauberer by Sebastian Brauneis was the symptomatic film for my first Diagonale experience in Graz. Walking through such a medium-sized festival with a spectrum of around 150 films always holds a form of magic ready, but in the best sense it is the result of a clearly perceptible composition that gets completely out of view with the larger, more industrial festivals. Unlikely films meet over short distances and dialogues are created with people who by no means meet by chance, but who are also not planning to meet in the actual sense. 

Brauneis’ episodic film embodies a comparable experimental arrangement: a story of about 10 more or less present protagonists develops in a shaky balance between floating, questioning side glances and sobering narrative passages, which in their stubborn composition come across as overly clear and transparent. A debut film that tries to adapt a book by the Graz-based author Clemens J. Setz, who was acclaimed by some critics as a genius of the next generation and attacked nastily by others. A film equipped with an irritating, strange magic and a promising sense for form-conscious staging and for the view of the figurative, but soon the documentation of an unfortunate slope of bulky routines turns into a misunderstood form of evocation. The film becomes increasingly obvious: it’s all about extremes and their short circuits. Moods and impressions that call each other into question and comment on each other should collide in an unbearably targeted manner: a kind of cross section through life and environments, a kind of diagonal cross through society, a panorama of sharp edges. But in fact the film cants about itself, loses the feeling and the sovereignty of looks and moments, and becomes an inedible mush. 

Since 2016 the Diagonale has taken place under the direction of Sebastian Höglinger and Peter Schernhuber, who introduced the “In Referenz” programme as their most striking statement, a rail that should show lines of thought and spaces of possibility between the festival sections. Here, for example, film programmes comment on specific exhibitions, while Austrian productions meet international works or current perspectives meet historical ones. The section embodies a curatorial freedom within the program that is lacking at many comparable events in its consequence. A very welcome enrichment, then! And a call to search for connecting lines within a sharpened view, not to look at cinema in a vacuum, but to question its roots and obligations time and again. 

Huono filmi (Felix Forsman, 1950)

A sample serves this purpose, something less surprising than one would hope for. Film expert Olaf Möller is currently over represented at numerous festivals and cinemas; in his curatorial work he frequently likes to illustrate the distress of analog film in the face of digital upheaval. He is also invited as guest curator in Graz. His short film programme “Love among the Ruins” serves as an accompanying program to the exhibition “The Remains of Cinema” and brings together fragments of film history that look particularly good on paper: text panels of cinema performances from France strung together (Annonces pur exploitants – 1917?; edited by an anonymous author) encounter the dull and problematic trailer of the Paramount production American Venus. In addition to a live performance, they are fortunately accompanied by two outstanding film essays: Huono filmi by Felix Forsman and Filmsmälten by Tor-Ivan Odulf. 

Filmsmälten is projected on 16mm and creates a wonderfully complicated and unpleasant sketch of film history against the background of a smelting workshop for old film material. In the memory of cinema, war images meet stereotypes of popular cinema; exoticism meets car accidents and clumsy clamor. One moment there is fencing and smooching, and then soldiers greedily loop down some eggs boiled on the metal of a tank. Odulf assembles associatively; similarities and moods enter unexpected connections through musical film arcs, which is nice, but not sufficient for pictures of Wehrmacht soldiers who are cheered on by young girls with NS-flags and handkerchiefs. The film refuses to comment on it– as does the curator when the subject comes up in the final discussion. Möller interviews individual guests on the somewhat late evening sluggish audience and recounts secrets of cinema history, which are of particular interest to archivists. 

According to its description, another Diagonale festival section is located entirely in the present, perhaps in the future, and is entitled “Innovative Cinema”. The combination of both terms raises hopes for new steps and formal challenges for artistically adept films beyond cinephile retreats and the dry moving image rhetoric of gallery contexts. The four programs of the section are unfortunately dedicated to the latter, bulkily and wearily programmed and seem downright apathetic even against Olaf Möller’s self-absorbed eccentricity. The section is doubly problematic in view of the festival and its openly film-political orientation. The “innovative cinema” denies the competition programmes and especially the marvelous retrospectives of the festival (on provincialism and collective film production/distribution in Austria), their innovative potential, while at the same time such a section risks a ghettoization of its own films, which are supposedly keen on questioning the formal routines of cinema. 

In the Shadow of Utopia (Antoinette Zwirchmayr, 2017)

The latter is in some ways happening here, but stubbornly exaggerated to a redundant extreme: through an over-representation of moving image work exercises like die_anderen_bilder by Iris Blauensteiner, Tangled by Pille-Riin Jaik, 9 is 1 and 10 is none by Veronika Eberhart or relax|girlcam #1 rifle by Jessyca R. Hauser the section only underlines a dry and purely formal-political logic which tolerates even problematic films such as Antoinette Zwirchmayr’s neo-bourgeois and exoticizing In the Shadow of Utopia. A sensual and heterogeneous conception of cinema is largely ignored in the section; self-obsessed or pointlessly abstract works dominate unpleasantly and leave behind a bland feeling that mixes with frustration over the festival-political limitations of programming routines: which standards of film submission, which logic of topicality and premiere prevented a more stimulating and engaged curatorial work here? Noticeable political accents and clear attitudes are frustratingly rare within the body of “innovative films” (of all places!), and are then, like in the case of the performance film Unearthing. In Conversation by Belinda Kazeem-Kaminski, moderated away without subtlety or any understanding of the subversive potentials of art praised in even two programs dedicated to Austrian film pioneer Amos Vogel. On the other hand, as a political imperative within the section’s worst of four programs, the ambitious but completely unsuccessful work of Kazeem-Kaminski is also of little use. 

A strong impulse to leave the cinema sends me back onto the cold and rainy streets of Graz, but soon into the warm embrace of master director Mara Mattuschka’s new feature Phaidros. A film infused with philosophy, much more wild, youthful and restless than most of the presented works by filmmakers of the young generation, and also a film which deserves an individual review. Mattuschka’s work justified the visit to Graz as much as Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa or Am Himmel by Magdalena Chmielewska: the latter reveals itself during only half an hour as no less than outstanding, as a work of violent, penetrating fantasy and undeniable urgency. Am Himmel features the haunting presence of Maria Spanring as a young woman radically performing her psychological and physical autonomy to regain her strength after an assault. Chmielewska and Spanring achieve a rare symbiosis of performance and visuality which expands the intensity of the film far beyond what is visible onscreen. 

Extra-Terrestrial Ecologies (Retroflectors the astronaut, the robot, the alien) (Ralo Mayer, 2017)

Across the program assortments and sections, completely in the sense of the references conjured up by Höglinger and Schernhuber, some surprising and inspiring works enter into dialogues with each other, quasi via the constantly present subtext of ruptures and diagonal connecting lines. One of the more stimulating films I watched in the innovative cinema program playfully and eloquently opens up numerous fields of tension: Ralo Mayer’s essay Extra-Terrestrial Ecologies (Retroflectors the astronaut, the robot, the alien) positions itself between fiction and history, cinema and reality, conspiracy theory and techno-romanticism. Mayer follows his personal film memories of Blade Runner and E.T. back to his childhood and then investigates along film clips from the beginning of cinema (Mèlies) to the present (The Martian), where motifs from science fiction films keep finding their echoes in reality. At the core of his essay are metaphorical questions about the 1991 “Biosphere 2” experiment, which was closely intertwined with The Theater of All Possibilities collective and the aftermath of counterculture. Based on the legends surrounding the project, the film raises systemic questions and, with a perceptible will to complicate, dismantles deadlocked concepts: 

“When humans are astronauts and nature is a replicable complex system, then we might also abandon the idea of nature itself. Then there is no more separation between nature, technology and culture. This leads to another, more radical line of thinking. Ecology as a conceptualization of meshes of things, living and non-living, human and non-human, physical and informational. A mash of things which can never be fully grasped.” 

The renowned Japanese experimental filmmaker Takashi Makino currently seems to be in a related schizophrenia. After a whole series of purely organic, incredibly intense film trips, in his recent collaboration with the Austrian sound and video artist Manuel Knapp titled At the Horizon, geometric lines and surfaces collide with a meandering background reminiscent of water as well as an intense noise soundtrack.. The lines break what many of Makino’s works are used to: an intense feeling of complete immersion. Knapp’s lines are unpleasant foreign objects, welcome but unresting irritations. For more than 30 minutes, the film connects what at first does not want to belong together, and then creates in its stubbornness a strange, new sense of space and unknown, pulsating connections between surface perception and deep intoxication.

Makino has been travelling through the festival scene for years and has been a guest at almost all relevant European experimental film festivals. And yet he is still hardly known within Japan. Even experienced film lovers have rarely met his work there and answer to statements about his work with puzzled but curious looks. This is not the case with Austrian documentary filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter, who has been highly regarded both inside and outside Austria for years. 

Die bauliche Maßnahme (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2017)

It was not surprising to see his new work Die bauliche Maßnahme being awarded the main prize for documentary film in Graz. It’s an interview film, which at first appears to be rather dry, for which he chose a very classical form.  And yet it becomes more and more difficult to resist its marvelous attention to detail and constellation. Geyrhalter basically examines lines which are as abstract as Makino’s, lines that define, change and separate a political, cultural space. In this case, however, there is a line in the center that has not been drawn at all: the border fence between Austria and Italy, which was supposed to stop migratory movements within Europe and, despite questionable public statements by right-wing conservative politicians in Austria, was fortunately not enforced and built up. Geyrhalter measures the mental spaces of the population, scans the Brenner thoroughfare in the Alps for its political consequences, as well as its historical and ideological traces. 

The much discussed border fence is now still in containers at the Brenner Pass, waiting to be of use. Border guards regularly check the condition of the material and there the film also closes: at the numbered door of the fence container. After many complicated statements by the Tyrolean population around the Brenner Pass, which deal with open xenophobia and fragile stereotypes, after the concerned and cowardly looks of border officials into the camera, the labelled container creates a disturbing appearance of uncanny order and retrievability, of mental blockades being inconspicuously sorted away.