Austria might still be best known for Mozart, inventing therapy and exporting Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the landlocked Alpine republic now also makes waves in breakout cinema.

It kicked off big time with Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” taking home the 2009 Cannes Palme d’Or, going on to pick up a Golden Globe and two 2010 Academy Award nominations.

2011 saw three films in the Berlinale competition section; “Jew Suss: Rise and Fall,” “On the Path” and “The Robber,” with “Initiation” debuting in the Panorama sidebar. Wolfgang Murnberger’s “My Best Enemy” played out of competition and Marie Kreutzer’s “The Fatherless” featured in the Panorama Special section.

What Martin Schweighofer, managing director of the Austrian Film Commission, calls “a great year, internationally speaking,” continued with the Cannes competition entry of Markus Schleinzer’s hard-hitting pedophile study “Michael” and Karl Markovics’ “Breathing,” which won the Prix Label Europa Cinemas Award in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar. Then came Michael Glawogger’s triptych doc “Whores’ Glory,” which was picked up by Venice. Austrian films “won around 50 awards last year, with more than 400 screenings at various festivals,” Schweighofer says proudly.

This year, the roll continues, with two films in the Panorama Special, Umut Dag’s “Kuma,” which follows two Turkish newlyweds starting life in Vienna, and Julian Poelsler’s “The Wall,” which Schweighofer calls “an inner monologue film” about a woman trapped by an invisible barrier. In the Panorama section, there is Peter Kern’s “Faith Love Death,” about a mother and disabled son with a soured relationship, while Forum brings the world premieres of “Spain” by Anja Salomonowitz (“a story of love, quests and obsessions,” she says) and Ruth Mader’s “What Is Love.”

Is it something in the water? No, it’s the result of a very deliberately conceived and carefully implemented strategy.

“This doesn’t happen overnight,” Schweighofer says. “We’ve been working long and hard to brand Austrian films. We have a huge number of very creative and singular directors. Austrian films offer variety; it’s worth taking a look because they go in so many directions.”

A glance through the AFC’s catalog shows the many sizes and shapes Austrian take. “It’s the diversity that makes it,” says Schweighofer. “You won’t like everything, but you will like something! ‘Michael,’ ‘Breathing’ and ‘The Fatherless’ are all first films. They and others got recognized because they are very good and we shepherded them. Three or four years ago, we had hardly any new directors debuting. Now we have a number of them.”

At this point, Austria boasts enough female directors for the AFC to have programmed a retrospective, “The Wild Women of Vienna,” featuring the likes of Salomonowitz, Mader, Kreutzer, Barbara Albert, Sabine Derflinger, Ruth Beckermann, Barbara Eder and Elisabeth Scharang.

Still, “Austria is pretty small,” Schweighofer notes. “It’s not a huge industry, and most things are concentrated in Vienna. That’s why we also need films that perform well locally.”

He cites “Breathing,” which is getting a U.S. outing through Strand Releasing, and “The Unintentional Kidnapping of Elfriede Ott,” a comedy he considers an example of “a big local hit, but also the kind of film that doesn’t travel.”

The country’s larger producers have to serve film and TV out of economic necessity. Newest kid on the block, Terra Mater Factual Studios, owned by Red Bull Media House, follows a three-track strategy.

“We have classical, big, theatrical documentaries,” says CEO Walter Kohler. “We are prepping ‘Brazil: Carnival of Life’ to coincide with the Olympics and football World Cup and natural features, true stories told through the means of nature films, which contain fictionalized elements, like ‘Among Wolves’ and ‘The Cry of the Eagle.’ Third, we have thrillers like ‘The Lazarus Protocol,’ which are real stories told in a fictional manner.”

It’s that mix that seems to give Austrian cinema its advantage. According to Schweighofer, “Our genre filmmakers are also still active. The ‘Dead in 3 Days’ franchise was special, new ones are coming and new areas are being explored. We may be small and have no star system, but within our framework we are acting smoothly and smartly with what works.”

Berlin Daily Spotlight: Austrian Cinema
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