Iconoclastic Austrian indie director and former New German Cinema actor Peter Kern isn’t just the subject of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s “Kern,” but also the low-fi film’s strongest creative force. Rather than being a clip-heavy biographical docu, the pic explores its cantankerous protag’s personality simply by following him around, leading him to question the rookie helming duo’s directorial savvy oncamera and thus (unwittingly?) revealing his own ideas about filmmaking. Frustratingly stranded between fact and at least occasionally staged fiction, this unclassifiable oddity will appeal to some cinephile and queer fests.
The basic concept is inspired, but should have been better developed, as Franz and Fiala (intermittently onscreen) too often seem content to simply let Kern, or rather Kern’s whims, run the show, resulting in a meandering and occasionally choppy narrative. It doesn’t help that it’s never really clear what’s simply caught oncamera, as the directors randomly follow Kern around his home, on the set and at the premieres of his films, and what has been staged or at least partially prepared beforehand, such as the awkward, soaplike scenes with Kern’s Polish cleaner (Lucyna Kopec).
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Standard interview material in which Kern talks about his youth and sexuality (Leonard Bernstein, who gave Kern his first kiss, played the director’s tongue “like a piano”) alternates with a jumble of other footage. There are numerous views of Kern watching his own low-budget films (“Hab’ ich nur deine Liebe,” “King Kongs Traenen”) for minutes on end and occasionally choking up while doing so; his colorful tantrums on his own sets and on the set of Franz and Fiala’s film (“This film has no concept!” he complains in the first scene); and, for those familiar with Kern’s filmography, the obligatory “shocking” material. This includes a shot of the severely obese Kern naked while singing “Abendstille” and his account of one of his sexual hangups, which involves himself as a child and a big-membered uncle he “looks back on fondly.”
Watching “Kern,” auds will get an idea of the subject as an outsized personality for whom any thought left unsaid is a thought not worth having, though he’s not too fond of critics and criticism. As a filmmaker, his basic m.o. seems to be a combo of instinct and authoritarianism. But since it’s unclear whether Kern’s big mouth is part of his staged personality or his real one, it becomes hard to really care whenever he throws another hissy fit.
Beyond these basic and perhaps not even real insights, there’s precious little to the current edit, credited to Birgitt Bergman and Nikolaus Eckhard, which feels somewhat aimless and too padded out for anyone but the die-hard Kernophile (if such a thing exists). A severe pruning to fit the pic into one-hour tube slots wouldn’t hurt.
The film’s tendency to ramble is something of a surprise, since Franz is known first and foremost as the co-screenwriter of the films of Ulrich Seidl (“Import/Export,” the current “Paradise” trilogy), who produces here through his Ulrich Seidl Film shingle. In a further tease, Kern himself is credited as playing the “director” in the credits.