The Experimentalist

The Austiran Filmmuseum Honors Eclectic Cult Filmmaker Ferry Radax

On The Town | Victoria Oscarrson | July 2007

Ferry Radax has defied categorization on numerous levels (Photo: Alina Parigger)

Ferry Radax is a man of many histories. The Austrian-Hungarian filmmaker is an experimentalist, appropriation artist, screenwriter, muse, director, a "wild man."

At seventy-five (with a twinkle in his eye, and still mustachioed), he has been celebrated from Dublin to New Delhi, most prestigiously the ‘Cross of Honour from the Austrian Government, the Asian ‘Academy Award in New Delhi,’ ‘Golden Palme’ in Cannes  and upcoming, the ‘Gold Medal of the City of Vienna.’

In June, the Austrian Filmmuseum hosted two of his most important experimental films both with a connection to surrealist mind spinner Konrad Bayer (1932-1964), to honor his 75th birthday. Using a mix of documentary, fiction and multi-media elements, his movies are a theater of gentle psychological interpretation and humor, provoking intrigue into, at times, quite radical and difficult subjects.

He has a lyrical, dry way of carving words into language, recalling "concrete poetry," quietly surfacing from the background.

His work is highly referential, with influences from Luis Bunuel’s Milky Way, Jean Cocteau’s mythic story telling, and Warholian moving color visuals, Magritte’s faceless Man in a Bowler Hat and landscapes, or music from Procol Harem, and much more to put the senses on high tension wires.

Side by side with the Wiener Gruppe, avant garde poets and performers from the mid- 1950s including Konrad Bayer, Radax’s independent evolution began and he became best known for his portraits of famed Austrian intellectuals and artists – philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and playwright Thomas Bernhard. as well as Irish novelist James Joyce  and other outsiders.

In all, he produced over one hundred forty films and later in life, paintings reminiscent of the American painter, Edward Hopper. He is a mirror not just of Austria where he spent part of his childhood, but the places and spaces of the world through which he has followed the journeys of his subjects.

From the start, Radax’s life path defied categorization. Christened "Feri" by his parents, in the Hungarian fashion, Radax changed his name to the English spelling early on, liking the suggestion of a ferryboat and its implications for crossings, boundaries or otherwise, that has characterized his life.

Trained with the Vienna Boys Choir, he went on to the Frankfurt Musikgymnasium where it was the spotlights on stage, he says, that inspired him to become a filmmaker.  With the fears and deprivations of war a constant backdrop, he began taking photographs in the late forties with a borrowed Leica, already conscious of evolving (with) his own "voice."

In 1949, at the age of eighteen, he went to work for the Austrian-born location and still photographer William A. Nassau on the set of The Third Man (1949-1951). It was hardly a glamorous job; he carried cameras, tripods, lamps and was the only assistant in the dark room. Yet, as there was no film making tradition in Austria at this time, excitement was in the air: filming, technically impressive, expensive not to mention, being  the presence of such an imposing actor as Orson Welles.

Through cut and paste in  "the Vienna underground of the time," Radax continued to cut his teeth working on Nassau documentaries until 1955.

It may be hard to recall how gray Vienna was in those years between 1945 and 1955, divided into Russian, French, British and US zones, the economy, along with the infrastructure, in shambles. Ferry Radax lived in the Russian zone.

"Russians, arrogant" he recalls, "British, British and Americans, easy going".  Since there was nothing of the immediate past in Vienna, one had to self-invent; creativity began to explode.

"You could begin everything new, since there was no possibility to be informed about what happened before the war," he says. America was a mythic source of hope, "Coca Cola was imperialized," and Blue Danube Radio generated ideas for the future. Revival was the key to his generation.

While shaped by Vienna, Radax felt closed out of career opportunities, and like many others, emigrated to Germany to earn money and gain experience.

"A society of envy will throw your madness out," Radax said, "but when you come back, they give you another chance. Like aliens from other places, you can return and make your mark."  Perhaps his own sense of alienation was the connection to his choice of numerous portrait documentaries: Joyce forced to leave Ireland, Wittgenstein’s self-imposed exile to Norway and Ireland, Thomas Bernhard who fled to the Austrian countryside to escape Vienna ‘s stifling establishment.

One of Radax’s curious and rarely seen films, The Head of Vitus Bering (1970, was screened at the Film Museum event, after a script by Bayer whom he had originally gotten to know through the Wiener Gruppe.  This is about the explorer/sea captain’s somewhat surreal adventure to discover whether Asia was connected to America in the early 1700s – thus the name, Bering Strait.

Another better known cult film he made with Konrad Bayer, is  Sonne Halt (1959)  a bizarre castle adventure centered on a decadent Louis XIV character (not unusual for Radax to create the eccentric) who looked a little like the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz.

In 1980, he turned Joyce’s literary labyrinth, Ulysses, into one of his most well known and clever productions, Who are You, Mr. Joyce, where within the setting of Carnival in Zurich, a masquerade for ‘Bloom’s Night’ emerges.

The narrator meets the ghost of Joyce in a graveyard and follows the steps of his life to Dublin, Paris, Trieste, Zurich, through moments with his children, his lovers, "madness being the secret of genius" Joyce once wrote, which Radax surely embraced.

Other films of particular note include:

Ludwig Wittgenstein, biographical and philosophical investigations (1971-1975) took four years on and off to complete having studied in depth this philosopher’s treatise, Tractatus among other writings.  This film put the then little known Wittgenstein into the world, equally established Ferry’s reputation.

Capri – Music Vanishing Away (1983-1984), tells the life a composer who goes to Capri to write his masterpiece encountering Capri as a place of creative people and dark secrets.

Thomas Bernhard – Three Days (1970) is a slow moving interview in black and white documenting this controversial writer and the making of the film at the same time, a masterpiece.


For further information see website:

An exhibition of photographic stills from ‘Sonne Halt’ (Sun Stop) continues through July 13 at the Chobot Gallery, 

1010 Vienna

 Domgasse 6. 

A series of DVDs of Radax films in English and German will be on order through by ‘Der Standard’ in October and November.

Other articles from this issue: