More Honors for Austrian Film

For Michael Haneke and Christoph Waltz, the red carpet to the Golden Globes is woven with shadows of the past

On The Town | Suzanne Capehart | February 2010

In an unprecedented sweep of this year’s Golden Globe Awards, top honors went to two Austrians, director Michael Haneke and actor Christoph Waltz, continuing a surge of recent interest in the country’s film industry. Haneke’s Das Weiße Band, submitted as a German production, gleaned the award for Best Foreign Film, while Waltz’s performance in Inglourious Basterds earned him Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role.

One a drama, one a satire, these are both powerful films that like several other recent Austrian and German films, recast our understanding of the wrenching events of the World Wars. In Das Weiße Band, the tranquility of a quiet village is punctured by grisly crimes: Factories are burnt to the ground, a child is beaten, and a woman dies in a freak accident, providing the ground for a probing inquiry into the nature of evil as it unfolded in a German village facing a loss of innocence on the eve of WWI.

In the second film, American infiltrators open rapid gunfire in an unsuspecting bar. Scenes of bullets and blood like this one punctuate Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the story of eight men who infiltrate German-occupied France with the sole purpose of exterminating Nazis. In the defining role, Austria’s Christoph Waltz plays Hans Landa, "the Jew Hunter".

These honors are important in several ways, first because the Golden Globes are treated as a warm-up for the coveted Academy Awards in March, so the recent success of both men bodes well for the upcoming nominations in early February.

However, they also continue a heightened interest in Austrian and German film at the highest levels of the industry, a reemergence from effective obscurity for at least two decades and by some measures for the majority of the post-war period. The last time an Austrian had been nominated for an Oscar was in 1985, with Klaus Maria Brandauer getting a bid for Best Supporting Actor in Out of Africa for his role as the Baron Blixen.

The only other was a nomination in 1965 for Oskar Werner for his supporting role as Dr. Will Schumann in the Ship of Fools, based on the short story by Katherine Ann Porter with a screenplay by Abbey Mann. Therefore, this recent surge of Austrian honors, many dealing with the tangled issues of war and repression, brings welcome acknowledgement and new energy to Austrian filmmaking.

In 2006, Austrian filmmaker Michael Wagenhofer won recognition in the industry with the international film critics’ FIPRESCI Prize and the Amnesty International Human Rights Award for his powerful documentary Feed the World, followed by a second, Let’s Make Money, which received the Deutscher Dokumentarfilmpreis in 2009.

In 2007, Das Leben der Anderen, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, gleaned an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. This disturbing story peels back the many layers of surveillance, oppression and corruption of East Berlin before the Wall came down in 1989, addressing the divided consciousness that characterized the experience of Austrians and West Germans, with long borders to the communist East, cut off from their pre-war national identities.

The year 2008 brought another success for Austrian films with Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Die Fälscher, and the first Austrian filmmaker since 1968 to win an Oscar. Die Fälscher follows the activities of counterfeiter Saloman Sorowitsch, who is identified in a concentration camp and required to forge currency in a Nazi effort to destabilize the British Pound and the U.S. Dollar in a concentration camp in exchange for better living conditions.

Then last year, Götz Spielmann’s powerful Revanche, highlighting prostitutes in modern-day Vienna, was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Haneke has already established an impressive film record of film awards, with Funny Games (1997 in German, 2008 in English) detailing the inner quirks and violent tendencies of supposedly normal individuals; The Piano Teacher (2002), based on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel about an isolated piano teacher who struggles with her sexual, masochistic desires; and Caché (2005), honored that year with the Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival. He also received worldwide recognition with the Dutzend Prize and a second Palme d’Or for Das Weiße Band earlier this year. Haneke’s past temerity in questioning perceived normality and dealing with camouflaged human imperfections is quite apparent in Das Weiße Band, when a village literally turns on itself, and remains in sync with his past films that also project a distorted sense of reality.

Meanwhile, Christoph Waltz’s vast experience in popular television crime and police serials like Tatort, Komissar Rex, and Der Alte that had given him the virtuosic flexibility required by the role, planted a familiar Austrian face at the center of a prominently American and German cast. Waltz, a native of Vienna, studied in New York before returning to Europe and receiving the esteemed O.E. Hasse Prize from the Berlin Academy of Arts.

Yet, the immense popularity of World War II themed films like Inglourious Basterds, as well as other recent international joint productions like Defiance, Charlotte Grey, Merry Christmas, The Good German, The Pianist and Valkyrie reinforces the claim that Americans are only interested in German-speaking films if they are related to World Wars I or II, or their aftermath. Ingrid Eggers of the Goethe Institute, organizer of the "Berlin and Beyond" film festival in San Francisco, remarked in an interview with The Atlantic in February 2008: "If you look at the films that really become successful in this country, most of them still have to do with the Nazi past."

However, directors and actors like Haneke and Waltz’s resumes demonstrate talents that extend far beyond the turmoil of two world wars. With the 82nd Academy Awards, these two great artists may have the opportunity to show the world that Austrian cinematic talents extend far beyond the reflections of a troubled past.

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