Austrian Films REVIEW /2020/

Twentytwenty was something else entirely. It forced us to reconsider our conception of normality as we have come to know it and made us recalibrate our individual und professional lives.

The Corona virus caused massive tectonic shifts sparing no one; it has also affected and altered the landscape of the film world in a previously unfathomable way. And who knows, all the changes that it has brought upon us could very well be here to stay.

Sure, the cinemas will survive – how many, though, will there be at the end of the nightmare? And what about the festivals – will we see their numbers dwindle? Will only the very big ones – like Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Sundance or Toronto – keep working some magnetic magic and set the stage for the essential wheeling and dealing, while the others either shrink to the size of regional events or throw in the towel? Much will depend on whether the good film people will still gladly roam the globe or travel less frequently than in the olden days.
How will we cope with the loss of the physical moment that has always been at the heart of all film things? Will the small screen become an even more prominent altar that we worship at? With Netflix, Amazon and company as the undisputed tabernacles?

So many questions. So few answers. What a bummer, now really! On the bright side: we can expect plenty of new films in all shapes and sizes. However, they might look different as regards aesthetics, storytelling, dealing with adjusted sensibilities and adding advanced formulas.

The Austrian Films Review 2020 catalogue that you are browsing through is of course mostly something from the past, from a time when things were still what we used to call normal. But since the year was anything but, it is also a slimmed down edition – a snapshot of the troubling time of Corona.

Just for the record: the Austrian film year started on a high and with very promising prospects – at Sundance and then Berlin. Doc maverick Hubert Sauper took us on a trip to Cuba, exploring the crumbling streets of La Habana and celebrating its beautiful people: Sundance was impressed by EPICENTRO and awarded Sauper’s freewheeling essay its World Cinema Grand Jury Prize.

A Special Jury Award by Berlinale’s Encounters jurors was bestowed on Sandra Wollner and her positively disturbing THE TROUBLE WITH BEING BORN. A great festival career was on the horizon for this challenging drama with an android child at its center right after the Berlin screenings. And then the lockdown hit. Sharing a similar fate were quite a few others. Rainer
Frimmel & Tizza Covi’s NOTES FROM THE UNDERWORLD for instance, a bloody but tender homage to the seedier districts of yesteryear’s Vienna, starring a real-life ensemble of tough-as-nails backroom gamblers and trigger-happy gangsters, corrupt lawmen and an enchanting Wienerlied crooner. On Berlinale’s award night this gem of a film shot in pristine black and white collected a very much deserved Special Mention by the Doc Jury.
Another documentary making waves was RUNNING ON EMPTY: a sobering but nevertheless gentle portrait of a Viennese family, living off welfare checks, with their faces glued to TV screens, feeding on computer games and junk food. While they are certainly misfits
we also meet a very warm and tight and understanding family. They just live another kind of normality. And Lisa Weber, the film’s director, is certainly not

There were others: like the multiple award winner OSKAR & LILLI, the heartbreaking drama as told by filmmaker Arash T. Riahi which opened in Paris cinemas but enjoyed only a few screen days before things came crashing down. That also happened to Stefan Ruzowitzky’s NARCISSUS AND GOLDMUND, based on the novel by Hermann Hesse. Oscar winner Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters) can claim the honour of being the first filmmaker to reach an agreement with Hesse estate to adapt one of his novels for the cinema.

All these and quite a few other films too were much appreciated by critics and audiences alike, but the euphoria faded away abruptly just a week or two later, when all the expectations came to a screeching standstill. Subsequently most everything was postponed or cancelled. Cinemas unplugged their projectors and switched off the lights, while festivals called it a year and mothballed the red carpets.

After six months of perplexity and helplessness, a cancelled Cannes Festival, no Karlovy Vary or Locarno (to name just a few) it was Venice, which against almost all odds, managed to raise the curtain at the Palazzo del Cinema again for the audience – including an impressive number of professionals. Obviously we were excited to have a coproduction unspool in the Venezia77 competition – Jasmila Zbanic ’s Screbrenica drama QUO VADIS, AIDA?

After Venice, a bit of hope was in the air and hesitantly a few doors opened again: San Sebastián tried their luck with a reduced but physical edition; and so did the Zürich Festival – Evi Romen’s drama WHY NOT YOU surfaced there and finally walked away as the winner of the festival’s Golden Eye Award. More events are lined up for WHY NOT YOU, including presentations at Tallinn’s Black Night Festival and at the Viennale where a few other new Austrian films also received the big screen treatment.

As for us at the AFC we sensed that acting quickly in these abnormal times would be essential: in cooperation with Dublin based company usheru we succeeded in creating and rolling out what we call ALL YOU CAN WATCH – our first B2C service and something that we believe was a spot-on move in these challenging times.

First and foremost, I want to thank the team of the AFC for keeping a clear head during these troubling days, for staying cool, calm and collected and doing everything that was possible. And then some!

At any rate: the new Austrian Films Coming Soon 2021 brochure is taking shape with a slate of exciting new films (including new works by Ulrich Seidl and Nikolaus Geyrhalter). It will be ready at the beginning of February and I certainly hope you will be able to pick it up in person at next year’s Berlinale or at another international film fest.
Until then: stay safe and cheerful.

Martin Schweighofer
Executive Director