An Austrian Jew revisits old demons when he returns to Vienna to give evidence at the trial of a Nazi in “Gebirtig,” an uneasy mixture of commercial romance and art-movie-with-a-conscience. Made watchable by a dignified perf from Peter Simonischek as the title character, plus smooth production values, pic is weakened by an excess of characters, a needlessly confusing structure and very theatrical playing by Polish vet Daniel Olbrychski. Jewish fests and some Eurowebs look like the likeliest destination for this movie, which opened Austria’s Diagonale fest in March and played commercially the following month.
Set in 1987, during the Waldheim era, and based on a novel by one of the co-directors, Robert Schindel, pic is initially centered on an actor, Danny Demant (August Zirner), as he auditions for a part in a WWII concentration camp movie, “Sea of Flames,” being produced in Europe by a U.S. company. Hermann Gebirtig (Simonischek), a famous New York-based composer, is approached to write the music, but refuses.
Various other characters are rather clumsily introduced, including a German journalist, Konrad (Olbrychski), and his wife (Corinna Harfouch), plus Danny’s lover, Susanne (Ruth Rieser), who walks out on him when he sleeps with another woman. Through a combination of circumstances, both Susanne and Konrad help to unmask a wanted Nazi, Rudolf Pointner, aka “The Skull Cracker,” who’s arrested (off-screen) and brought to trial.
Susanne flies to N.Y. to try to convince Gebirtig to return to testify. After lecturing her on how Austria is “a Nazi country” and telling her that he never wants to return there, he finally agrees on condition it is for one night only, with no publicity.
As Gebirtig returns to Vienna (where the flashbacks to his youth increase), and he finds himself at the same hotel as Konrad (who’s still traumatized by his father being an SS doctor at Auschwitz), the movie finally finds a focus. Unfortunately, it’s here that the earlier obliqueness gives way to over-literalism and a rather sappy romance. Pic brings little new to the table in its exhuming of German guilt and Jewish suffering during WWII.
Aside from Simonischek, Ressel is quite a screen presence as the gently persuasive Susanne. Zirner makes the most of a character that is basically peripheral, and as awkward as the whole making-a-movie side plot. German thesp Harfouch simply looks uncomfortable throughout.
Production values are good-looking, with full-bodied lensing by Polish ace Edward Klosinski.