by Claudia Siefen-Leitich

“Touch“, “shame”, and “disgust” have a multiple meaning in film. Not only do the protagonists touch each other, but the film touches the viewers. Trapped in their cinema seats, captivated by the events on the screen and integrated into the identity machine of cinema, the individual separates himself or herself in order to be involuntarily touched by the so called heroes. There are hardly any limits to cinema, unless one leaves the auditorium. And yet one is extraordinarily touched. Away from everyday sentimentality, cinema shows how it can touch: gently and tenderly, intensely and demandingly, erotically and excitingly, invasively and brutally. Doesn’t the warmth of the skin penetrate us much deeper? Can this bodily touching become a subject in cinema at all? And where is the shame here? Is it not everywhere where cinematic virtuality and bodily conditionality collide, where gazes cross, on and with the screen?

Not only the protagonists in the movie can be shamed, we as viewers experience this as well, at the mercy of the gaze we cast upon ourselves in the mirror of the screen while sitting in the cinema seat. This look at ourselves seems to be  driven by the comparison with the heroes on the screen. The latest film 2551.01 by Austrian director Norbert Pfaffenbichler leads us deeply underground. In the beginning it feels like an opera, a dark one, of course. A demonstration threatens to explode. The participants are all masked. But it is no longer possible to distinguish whether they have put on these masks or whether they were born with them. Our protagonist belongs to the latter. He gets caught up in this mass, the music drives us through the catacombs. In white uniforms and tightly closed, a state institution is already coming around the corner. We don’t find out who these people are. And we can only imagine what the demonstration is about.

The aggression increases and in the midst of the hatred, darkness and helplessness we see a child. The crowd disperses, the child remains abandoned. Our protagonist can’t help himself, he runs up, lifts the child in his arms and looks for his own escape route. The first danger seems to have been averted. Now the danger of responsibility and affection looms…. Of course, our protagonist first does everything he can to get rid of that child. He will not succeed. All the possibilities that present themselves presuppose that he leaves the child to its own devices. Or into the hands of someone whose intentions are frightening and threatening. A panopticon of horror and disgust sets itself free. For the world around them will not change. The tenuous connection between the two does nothing to change the horror of the world they live in. But they don’t let it corrupt them either.

“The film 2551.01 was handed over to me completely silent after the final cut. Since I was very involved in the working process on set as an assistant director, it took me a while to get an unbiased view of the material. I had to completely re-score the film three times until I had the feeling that the sound was now opening up its own independent space. At first we thought we wanted to work only with electronic noise sounds, but this was not coherent. To put everything correctly and realistically also seemed wrong. The film is now exactly in between, in a space that integrates both. Sometimes sounds of steps or movements are missing or not quite synchronised. I tried to put the audience in a certain tension through these deliberate irritations, which perhaps also leads to a certain questioning of the images. The sound turns its design inside out and does not hide the fact that it is artificially recreated. The first pieces of music were composed by Wolfgang Frisch, and they immediately gave the film a very spectacular edge with their intense metal, organ and electro songs. For me, the task was then to create more music that was fragmentary and underlined individual moments with piano or jazz. I think Wolfgang’s and my music has always been something like a commentary on the scenes. So the music never comes from inside the film, as is perhaps more common with a soundtrack. It works much more from the outside. Together with Norbert Pfaffenbichler, with whom we talked a lot about music, Chaplin and the silent film era, we came to this approach. The music can be seen as a kind of masking, like the performers wear in the film itself. It was also very important to Norbert that the sound always creates breaks in the atmosphere. So we made a conscious decision there not to design the film in dolby surround because the images were shot in the style of a silent film and the stereo space corresponded more to that.“

– statement by Simon Spitzer, sound & music with 2551.01

Horror lurks around every corner in this underworld. Driven by fear and hopelessness, we recognise clever quotations from cinema history. These quotations are briefly hinted at by Pfaffenbichler before he himself expands on them and takes them to extremes. Or to simply drop them again in the middle of our recognition. This is done in a playful way, which nevertheless requires great choreography and acting. Since we don’t get to see any faces, the actors don’t reduce their acting to mere gestures but work with full physical commitment.

“My experience is that the scenes turn out best when the director gives as few instructions as possible. The movements look most natural when you just let the performers act the way they feel is right for them. Immediately before each shoot, I would briefly explain the scene to the performers and what they should do, where they should stand, walk, run, fall, fight, and so on. Then I would just put them in front of the camera and let them do it. I just let them improvise in front of the camera. Often the scene changed as a result. In this way, many scenes were included in the film that were not in the script, but were created on the set through the interaction of the performers. The acting in this project was of course special: all the actors are permanently masked, it is a silent film without dialogue that was shot exclusively in windowless, underground rooms; the film was cast exclusively with amateurs, who all took part without pay. And since the whole film was shot without sound, it was always possible to call out instructions to the actors during the recording. Of course, this made things a lot easier and faster. The time pressure of such a low-budget project is another factor; rehearsals are not possible under such circumstances.“

– statement by Norbert Pfaffenbichler, director of 2551.01

So if we consider what one can be ashamed of, it is probably fair to say that the feeling of shame can occur for all sorts of things, when the person in question notices a deficiency in him or herself, which can be both a social transgression and a physical “defect”. Pfaffenbichler knows the ropes with his new film: we are ashamed that we cannot help the child, and thus Pfaffenbichler also addresses fundamental primal fears in this his clever film. “To be continued…”, he promises at the end, just before the very extensive credits start rolling.

In this cinematic beauty the child in ourselves will be found.

(I was lucky to see this film on the big screen during the “Diagonale – Festival of Austrian Film“ in 2021.) Thanks to Simon Spitzer, and Norbert Pfaffenbichler.