Women drive alternative cinema

Radical femme helmers are at the cutting edge of Austria's avant garde

Austria is the birthplace of psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud’s influence can still be seen in the new wave of Austrian cinema.

“Vienna is the world capital of denial and Austrian filmmakers are putting our society through therapy, undigging what is otherwise suppressed,” says producer Alexander Dumreicher-Ivanceanu. He works at Vienna-based shingle Amour Fou, which produces a mix of European arthouse and experimental fare.

The films currently being unearthed from the Austrian subconscious are striking a chord locally and on the international fest circuit. Amour Fou’s latest production, “Taxidermia,” received development funding from Sundance, and its German-Austrian co-production “Crash Test Dummies” screened in the Forum sidebar at Berlin this year.

In 2003, Amour Fou had three pics at the Cannes Film Festival: Bady Minck’s “Am Anfang war der Blick,” French co-production “Pas de Repos pour les Braves” and Ruth Mader’s “Struggle.”

The ultralow-budget “Struggle” exemplifies what new Austrian cinema is all about: “It’s young, it’s female and it’s providing a social critique without being moralistic,” says Roland Teichmann, director of the Austrian Film Institute.

Mader is one of a group of young femme helmers including Jessica Hausner (“Lovely Rita”), Barbara Albert (“Free Radicals”), Andrea Dusel (“Blue Moon”), Barbara Graeftner (“My Russia”), Ulrike Schweiger (“Twinni”) and Anja Salomonovitz (“Das wirst du nie verstehen”) dominating the local scene.

Many of these helmers met at film school in Vienna, where friendships were forged and ideas exchanged. Working against a background where it was normal for a woman to sit in the director’s chair, they became “much more relaxed and confident about presenting a uniquely female perspective,” says Hausner.

Her most recent pic, “Hotel,” which screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, is the story of a hotel receptionist who discovers that her predecessor disappeared mysteriously and is convinced of her impending doom. “The film deals with the emptiness of a society characterized by materialism and the pressure to succeed,” explains Hausner, whose “Lovely Rita” screened in Un Certain Regard in 2001.

Not exactly cheerful stuff, but then Hausner, like other Austrian directors of her generation, grew up under the guiding light of doom maestros Michael Haneke (“The Piano Teacher,” “Funny Games”) and Uli Seidel (“Hundstage”).

“Haneke is very much the shining beacon of Austrian cinema. What I have always found so inspiring about him, but also Uli Seidel, is their consistency and refusal to compromise. That’s what I’m also striving for in my films,” says Hausner.

This fighting spirit typifies contemporary Austrian cinema. It’s triggered not only by the fact that Haneke’s and Seidel’s stance on integrity has proved so successful, but also the country’s political climate.

Explains Hausner, “Austrian society is possibly more hierarchical and conservative than other countries. The culture here is hermetically sealed, which creates a pressure. This makes creative processes much more intense and potentially explosive.”

It’s not just women who are keen to get their perspective onscreen. Coop99, a production outfit that Hausner founded with Barbara Albert, Martin Gschlacht and Antonin Svoboda, is in post with Svoboda’s first pic, “Play Life,” about a compulsive gambler.

Amour Fou’s “Crash Test Dummies” was the debut of Joerg Kalt, and it is prepping Christian Frosch’s conspiracy thriller “Neustadt.”

Robert Pejo’s “Dallas,” about poverty-stricken Gypsy life in Romania, screened in the Panorama section at Berlin this year.

“Dallas” was produced by Allegro Film, another incubator of Austrian talent. Says the shingle’s Helmut Grasser: “Austrian cinema is becoming increasingly diverse and it’s more and more difficult to speak of a specifically Austrian perspective. But what I would say is that we’re really trying to encourage young directors to develop a strong and unique style.”