Austria’s 2nd Oscar – Almost

A year after Stefan Ruzowitzky’s moment of glory, hopes were high for a sequel

Austrian director Götz Spielmann speaking at the nominee’s reception for the best Foreign Language Film Awards | Photo: Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Ursula Strauss at the after-party | Photo: Matthias Wurz

Saturday Morning, Feb. 21, Beverly Hills

It was a cloudy Saturday, Feb. 21, when cineastes got a glimpse of the five films that were nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the 81st Annual Academy Awards. The legendary Samuel Goldwyn Theater at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, used by the Academy for the Oscar nominations each year, was host to the traditional Foreign Language Film Nominees Symposium, held for the 31st time.

There were 65 submitted this time, and Austria’s submission, Götz Spielmann’s Revanche, was short listed, along with entries from Germany (Baader-Meinhof-Complex), France (The Class), Japan (Departure) and Israel (Waltz with Bashir).

Austrian director Götz Spielmann speaking at the nominee’s reception for the best Foreign Language Film Awards | Photo: Matt Petit / ©A.M.P.A.S.

From the outside, the theater looked like any other office building with its darkened glass façade, but the gowned and tuxedoed crowd passing through the security checks were clearly not on their way to work.

The red-carpet wound its way upstairs, past two Italian-made and beautifully crafted Bisazza mosaic Oscar statues, reflected in the mirrored wall, softening the otherwise sterile atmosphere. Upstairs, posters of movie legends were hung as a reminder of the heydays of Hollywood filmmaking. Finally, I entered the theater and took an unreserved seat in the middle.

Admission was free for any of the symposia, but registration was required on the Academy website (www.oscars.org), and events were quickly sold out.

The Foreign Film nominations are of particular interest, even in provincial Hollywood: these directors are exotic and bring a range of new experiences and projects. Along with it comes the huge international media interest.

Although world media seemed to have identified the clear favourite– the Israel Animated Feature Film Waltz with Bashir – the locals remained sceptical. Mike, a middle-aged Hollywood resident and regular said he “wouldn’t bet on it to win,” and his tip instead was the Japanese Departure, whose screening he had seen just a few days ago.

When I let on I was Austrian and excited to see yet another Austrian movie nominated, he smiled.

“A good movie indeed,” he agreed, “but at the beginning I wasn’t sure whether this was a porn movie. But then it gets really exciting and powerful.” But, he doubted it would be enough to win. Similar voices could be heard where I was seated, and so, I keep thinking, everyone might be in for a surprise.

Each film nomination was introduced with a short clip, and then all the five directors were invited on stage for an entertaining panel discussion, moderated by Mark Johnson, chair of the nominating committee.

As the segments were screened, my attention was caught by the clip of The Class; a skillful movie, where the teacher François Bégaudeau – also the best-selling author of the book on which the film is based – plays the lead character. The students of a multi-ethnic Parisian classroom are also non-professionals.

Yet, this film – currently showing in Austrian cinemas – won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008; and is, if fact, the first French film in 22 years to receive such an honor. Through the film’s authenticity one feels the challenges a society faces when educating a multi-ethnic young generation.

In the scene introducing the film, one of the students chose the word Autrichien – Austrian – and in which Bégaudeau challenges its choice and the relevance: Austria is an “unimportant country” that no one would miss if it were to disappear from the map, he says, causing some amusement to Austrians present. A short, friendly rivalry on stage followed when Austria’s Götz Spielmann was seated next to the film’s director Laurent Cantet, and host Mark Johnson jokingly expressed his concerns about the seating arrangement.

Spielmann’s relaxed and casual way added particular charm to the debate, contrasting some of the serious film directors on stage. And his self-ironic opening comment “Excuse my bad English I hope you find it somewhat charming” was received by the packed audience with warm laughter.

The overall discussion focussed on the genesis of the nominated films, as well as of practical matters, such as casting of actors as well as differences between European and Hollywood film culture. European directors often envy Hollywood’s vast pool of talented actors, while back home, only a handful of top professionals are at hand for their film projects.

Japanese director Yojiro Takita had just flown in from Tokyo, where his film Departure picked up 10 awards at the Japan Academy Prizes. Based on the book Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician by the contemporary Japanese writer Shinmon Aoki, this is a charming romantic comedy about an unemployed cellist, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), who finds himself at a company specialising in the ‘ceremonial encoffination’ of corpses (prior to their cremation), instead of a travel agency. The film, at the U.S. box offices in May 2009, will be in Austrian cinemas in March 2009.

Discussing casting matters, the Japanese director, through a translator, explained that the “hardest actors to select were the corpses.” Had he had considered using “the real thing?” It had only occurred to him after the movie was shot.

But what about Revanche? Was this based on a story “you read in the papers?” asked host Mark Johnson? “I really also would like to know,” quipped Spielmann, at which point the audience was in hysterics. Equally disarming was his response to the question of inspiration for new film projects. “I did not realise for a long time that I do not have an idea (for a new movie).”

Finally, when Mark Johnson rounded off the panel with the information on cinema release of the respective films, the astonished moderator noticed that Götz Spielmann had left the stage.

Ursula Strauss at the after-party | Photo: Matthias Wurz

“He found an idea,” French director Laurent Cantet suggested, and Johnson closed with the words, that “one has to go with it when it comes.”

 

Sunday Evening, Feb. 22, Brentwood

The sky was covered with heavy clouds, a few dozen invited guests as well as representative of some Austrian media had followed the invitation of the Austrian Consul General in Los Angeles, Martin Weiss, at his residence in one of Los Angeles’ most enigmatic areas, Brentwood, where elegant houses and villas are nestling between mellow hilly vegetation.

Last year’s legendary party at the residence, when Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) received the 2008 Oscar was still being talked about a year later when I arrived at the scene just before 5 pm; the live broadcast of the ceremony was about to start.

A cross-culture buffet of snacks was provided in the dining room, small cheeseburgers as well as mini Schnitzels served by a liveried staff. Austrian white wine and champagne was paired with Californian red wine, and the guests mingled in either the living room with a large LCD screen and a staffed bar, or at the adjoining smaller TV room to follow the broadcast. For what seemed like a long time, the Awards ceremony at the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard attracted little interest from this crowd – Australian actor Hugh Jackman hosting, joined by actress Anne Hathaway at the opening, earned some praise for his opening performance; the mood was good, and conversation lively, and the evening slowly progressed. As it got dark outside, the lights dimmed and the glow of candles lent a warm atmosphere.

At about 7:30 pm, desserts were served, with little pies and strawberries and mousse. Along came Oscar-shaped gingerbread covered with a thick layer of golden glacier sugar. Spirits were high and there seemed to be full confidence that Austria would indeed win; and the tension rose at about 8 pm, when, before a commercial break, it was announced that the Award for Foreign Language Films would be awarded next.

The host and the entire guests poured back into the rooms, their eyes fixed at the TV sets, while the two ORF cameras were making sure to capture what be another historic moment. As the nominations were introduced everyone was on their feet, and seconds seemed to pass like hours when finally the announcement came: the Japanese entry, Departures, had won.

Faces fell; Hollywood had provided yet another surprise winner in this category, and it wasn’t Austria. Nevertheless, the proud host ordered the chilled champagne to be opened, as he reminded his guests that “a year ago at this point we celebrated the Oscar for Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Die Fälscher with champagne. This year we will open the champagne now despite not having won” to a cheering crowd and added congratulatory words on the quality of the Austrian nomination.

The further the evening progressed, everyone eagerly awaited the arrival of director Götz Spielmann and the Revanche cast. It was about 10:30 pm when the actors Andreas Lust and Johannes Krisch arrived at the Consul General’s residence. Both showed signs of fatigue and exhaustion, but their content faces indicated that they thoroughly enjoyed the Award ceremony and their stay in Los Angeles. For now, a nomination is honour enough.

Johannes Krisch eventually posed for the cameras with a gingerbread Oscar, whose head he finally bit off in a devilish facial expression and to the laughter of the guests.

Götz Spielmann, with producer Mathias Forbeg and lead actress Ursula Strauss, arrived at about 11.25 pm, evidently in a good mood, apologizing for being late.

Once the official group picture was done and the film cameras were off, the actors, champagne in hand, began reflecting their Oscar experience. Ursula Strauss, dressed in an elegant black evening dress and some dramatic jewellery said she had enjoyed the exhaustive preparations for the ceremony, but was quick to add that she was used to focusing on work rather than paying attention to accessories, as is done in Hollywood.

Trained as stage actor at the Volkstheater and long-term ensemble member of the Theater in der Josefstadt, Strauss showed some annoyance at repeated questions by journalists of whom she would like to meet at the Oscars ceremony.

“Kate Winslet would have been my choice,” she admitted, also because of her impressive performance as Hanna Schmitz in The Reader, which deservedly earned her the Oscar for Best Actress for that powerful role.

“But more importantly…” – then she paused and looked at the glass she was holding, lost for the right words. Finally she looked up.

“I guess, what I am trying to say is, we, as Austrian actors, should see all these great Hollywood stars as colleagues – despite our admiration for them.”

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