Schottentor: Brief Encounters

People meet and miss each other in a new avant-garde movie by contemporary Viennese filmmaker Caspar Pfaundler

On The Town | Katrin Wolf | November 2010

An old man – his name is "Altmann" – dies on the floor, down at the bleak Schottentor station, while the trains pass by behind him. Only Claudia (Gerti Drassl), a flower girl and an art student, recognizes it for what it is. She makes a drawing of the dead body, so that "it doesn’t get under my skin." Already this first scene sets the atmosphere of the film Schottentor – in the tram and subway station of the same name, the biggest in Vienna, people work, daydream, pass each other by, and meet without ever really getting together.

At a screening on a Saturday night at the Votivkino, which also has a cameo appearance in the film, 12 people have come to watch – all young (supposedly students) – both not unusual for an independent film.

"I wish I could stop thinking so much", says Claudia, who struggles to find her inner self and to unleash her creativity, and indeed the viewer sometimes has the same wish. The protagonists of the film think a lot, and we take part in this stream of consciousness, corresponding to the movement at the station and in the passage, where trains and people (real passersby) come and go. We listen in on their inner monologues and observe their daydreams, absorbed in their observations and anxieties within a stasis of limited action – although after some time this gets slightly exhausting. However, the movie sports an interesting cast – above all Gerti Drassl, who is great in her role as an overly sensitive art student. In fact, the performances are universally convincing and of a high quality, and are the film’s greatest strength.

The protagonists of the movie are somehow detached from the other people with their convinced steps, who seem to have found their place in life. Simon (Markus Westphal) has just lost his job as a university lecturer, and despairs at the loss of social status and security in the form of a regular income. At the same time, he knows that all this is "just a construction," and that his true suffering is a result of his loneliness.

He and Claudia suffer from their hesitation: When Simon meets a beautiful Latin-American woman down in the passage, he dreams of dancing tango with her; but in reality, he hesitates too long in their conversation, and she leaves. He longs for the "miracle" and wonder of a woman touching him. In the end, he will spend an evening with Claudia in a sushi restaurant. Both lonely and from Tyrol, they could give each other comfort, but in the end, cannot get together. They are as much detached from the world and each other as Peter (David Oberkogler), a near autist. He is equally lost in the relentless stream of people and trains and doesn’t want to fit into society, he’d rather be a dancer. Every day, he buys flowers in a different color.

And Altmann, the old man whose death marks the beginning and the end of the film, is a tramp. If he can’t reach the sea, he wants to die watching a movie, but he cannot decide on a film or afford the entrance fee. So he cannot even fulfil his illusions.

Lena (Claudia Kottal) is an assistant to an over-confident film director (Michael Masula). Together they do castings – which in the end involve the characters of the movie – and check the locations for a project like the one we just see. Lena wants to break out and leave her sarcastic boss, but at the same time feels a certain affection for him. The preparation for the film-within-the-film serves as a tool for even more alienation and reflects back on the plot, the setting and the characters. While this can be understood as slightly ironic, at the same time the dialogues between Lena and the director seem too artificial. What functions well with the inner monologues for disengaged characters like Claudia and Peter does not really work when the words are actually spoken.

This might have to do with the fact that Pfaundler started writing a prose text that was supposed to be a text in itself, but at the same time the model of a film. On the film’s website, Pfaundler states that he didn’t want to get caught "in the usual dramaturgic routine." And while the actors were free to add-lib many scenes seem overly artificial. The technique of the inner monologues might even work well in a theatre, but in a movie, one wishes there would be a bit more drive and originality. And while one of the themes is that events just go on and on, that people are unable to break out, the characters seem too detached from what’s going on around them – as if the film is trying too hard to be deep.

What works best are the film’s moments of self-reflective points. This includes the first scene, where director Pfaundler explains that viewers should now see a dark, mysterious sea, but that they didn’t have enough budget for this.

The Votivkino itself also plays a role – when Claudia has a small erotic encounter with the red-haired waitress. Ironically, she came to watch the movie Lost and Found, also directed by Pfaundler. Altmann, who cannot afford to travel to the sea to die, wants to leave his life watching a movie, but doesn’t get further than into the Votivkino Foyer. The same is true for the movie in the movie – the preparations of Lena and the nameless director comment on the plot and settings in Schottentor. While this adds an interesting perspective, this part of the plot also seems like a bit too much. Small scenes depicted in sketches show Altmann’s daydreams, including the sea at the beginning, and serve as a means of further alienation.

"If Vienna was at the sea, we could go swimming," Simon says to Claudia during the dinner in a sushi restaurant. Instead of getting together and grasping opportunities in the real world, the protagonists stay caught within themselves.

Other articles from this issue