The Viennale has appointed Franz Schwartz as interim artistic director, following the death of Hans Hurch. The plan of how to carry on with this year’s festival, scheduled to run from Oct. 19-Nov. 2, was announced on Thursday, as colleagues and friends gathered for the funeral of the Austrian film festival’s longtime leader. Hurch, who was 64 years old, died of heart failure on July 23, while visiting director Abel Ferrara in Italy.
Of all the festivals of its stature or larger, it’s hard to imagine one that might be more impacted by the passing of its director than the Viennale. Hurch was an iconoclastic figure who, although assisted by a programming team, personally shaped the lineup of each edition to reflect the extremely refined taste for which he was known. He had a tendency to invite films that no one else on his team understood, and might veto those he disliked, despite the support of his staff, resulting in an esoteric program rich in bold, independent voices, as opposed to mainstream fare.
Hurch welcomed contributions from the local Filmmuseum and the Austrian Film Archive, and though not all the selections were his, he made it a point to see (nearly) every film the Viennale invited, resulting in one of the most consistently curated programs of any festival on earth. But he also understood his audience, both among local cinephiles and the international community, and he selected films accordingly. And yet, as he told the BFI several years back, “I don’t want the Viennale to be the Hans Hurch festival, I would hate this idea.” Privately, if asked what such a lineup might look like (that is, one comprised exclusively of films that met his high standards), Hurch confided, “Then the festival wouldn’t show more than 20 films.”
I attended the Viennale twice, and both times was struck by its clear and often challenging aesthetic. Hurch wasn’t swayed by flashy style or hype, and gravitated to what film critic Manny Farber called “termite art” — diligent, piercing studies of the human condition. When it came to inviting American films, he championed directors who are all but unknown in this country, but far more deserving of a wider audience, including James Benning and students the avant-garde auteur had taught at Cal Arts, such as Mike Ott and David Fenster.
Though there was no mandate to deliver world premieres, he wouldn’t hesitate to select films that had been turned down elsewhere, encouraging new voices working in opposition to mainstream trends. Hurch was an early champion of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, as well as such international auteurs as Alain Guiraudie, Lav Diaz, Denis Coté and Miguel Gomes, offering each their first significant spotlights or retrospectives.
He was an intellectual who held court over long meals, incorporating such meetings and group exchanges of ideas into the fabric of the festival itself. He was also stubbornly old-fashioned, a Luddite when it came to e-mail and the internet, who would ask his assistant, Hellmut Goebl, to print his messages and read them aloud. Hurch then would dictate his responses, or else write them out longhand, convinced that the logic of how humans express themselves was changing with technology.
For years, Hurch had indicated that he would be stepping down as director, but each time his contract drew to a close, they convinced him to renew, most recently a two-year extension that would have taken him through the 2018 edition. Hurch had already selected roughly 90 films for the upcoming festival — roughly two-thirds of the approximately 150-film lineup — and Schwartz will take over from there, while trying to honor Hurch’s spirit (even in those inevitable cases when only Hurch could articulate his reason for believing in a particular film).
Colleagues insist that Hurch had the utmost respect for Schwartz, who was the most logical person to step in under such difficult circumstances. Something of a local hero when it comes to foreign and independent film in Austria, Schwartz co-founded the city’s Stadtkino arthouse in 1981 and founded a distribution company the following decade at a time when the local market was dominated by American-owned studios.
In an official statement, Viennale managing director Eva Rotter said, “He and Hans Hurch were close friends, and Hans Hurch thought highly of him with regard to his work and integrity. Together, we intend to stage a festival in the spirit of Hans Hurch.” As Tilda Swinton wrote upon hearing the news, “Great, lovely, brilliant Hans. There is a light that never goes out.” Schwartz and all involved hope to honor that legacy at the upcoming edition.