Diagonale: How to Snatch Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

Austrian film has celebrated some huge international successes, but the Diagonale does its best not to encourage any more

The festival played down the Austrian film scene rather than celebrating it | Photo: Ali Rabbani / Diagonale

Photo: Iris Windhaber / Diagonale

I pulled into Graz just in time for the gala opening, threw on a fancy suit, refreshed my hair and make-up, and jumped into a cab prepared to sidestep the paparazzi and compete with the stars of stage and screen, entering Austria’s premier film festival at the Helmut-List-Halle.

No red carpet. OK. But the hordes were there all right, thronging the entrance under a blue haze of cigarette smoke. But why were they all in jeans and sneakers, with the occasional floor-length jersey dress? At least it prepared me for what was to come: the apathetic attitude was a precursor for the event and many of its films.

The festival played down the Austrian film scene rather than celebrating it | Photo: Ali Rabbani / Diagonale

The festival played down the Austrian film scene rather than celebrating it | Photo: Diagonale

No fun please, we make Austrian films

Publicist and all-round Austrian film person Barbara Pichler, in her element here, caught the peculiar Diagonale mood in her opening address, complaining of the unfairness of celebrated successes getting easy “appreciation”, which is “often connected to money”. I was not amazed by this insight. Nor, I imagine, were the majority here, hustling for subsidies, given the shortage of spendthrift tycoons.

Then she remembered the festival was about film, and offered another insight: Festivals, she said, were “where art and society meet”, and events like the Diagonale were not just to “dissolve differences, or satisfy expectations”, but to give space to “the unexpected, the disconcerting, the irritating”. On this latter score we were certainly not to be disappointed.

Following the first two parts of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradies Trilogy, Liebe and Glaube, we would now see Hoffnung (Love, Belief, and Hope). Pichler wisely refrained from wishing “gute Unterhaltung” (enjoy the show), sticking to the neutral festival tagline “eine gute Projektion” (“good projection”). Weren’t we supposed to be entertained? This did not seem to be on the menu. Nor was celebration.

That night, Maria Hofstätter was awarded the Great Diagonale Actor’s Award, with a laudatio admitting that while this award means little, it might lead to bigger awards in Cannes or Venice. This self-defeating approach seems entirely neurotic.

But the bejeaned film glitterati did not appear surprised or inclined to address the topic. Sure enough, Seidl’s Hoffnung took “hope” into the realm of its opposite. The story revolves around the 13-year-old Melanie, who is sent to a fat farm (Diät Camp). She and other overweight kids spend their holiday with physical and nutritional education, trying beer and cigarettes for the first time and talking about their first crushes.

Melanie’s heartthrob is the doctor and director of the camp, 40 years her senior, and with all the deliberation of a first love, she innocently attempts to seduce him. In their bizarre encounters, the doctor fights with his own desires. The music-less genre, called “authentic fiction”, is hard to watch even if you are being paid to.

The painstakingly honest way in which characters’ decisions amount to non-outcomes is painful and disheartening, and almost all laughter is out of discomfort. In Seidl’s treatment, each strand of hope is nipped in the bud, leaving us back where we started, bruised and humiliated.

“Downer” documentaries vs. fresh air

The festival also showed a wide range of a genre for which Austria is growing more famous. While documentaries can do anything from enraging the viewer to bringing them to tears, many of the Austrian ones tend to do neither.

From 727 Tage ohne Karamo, a tale of an Austrian and a third-country national’s bureaucratic fight for love , or Vakuum, a story of death and letting go, to Schulden (Debt), which is self-explanatory, the emotional range of the topics was quite narrow. The “downer” variety is an important part of the the genre, but in Austria the alternatives, especially current works-in-progress, could offer a breath of fresh air.

Erwin Wagenhofer, whose works Let’s Make Money, We Feed the World and Black Brown White made international waves, has now embarked on a film about education. In Alphabet, he asks how the issues of finance, energy and the climate – all man-made problems – could have been developed by people who studied at the best schools and universities in the world. In the film he sets out to search for new solutions for education.

“It is time for films that don’t simply criticise and make people feel more helpless,” he writes, “but rather ones that intervene and show: It can be different!”

The Iranian-born Riahi Brothers (Arash and Arman T.) have also begun a new project, Everyday Rebellion, which is planned as an “homage to the creativity of peaceful resistance”, looking into the imagination needed to “think about the world in a new way and the courage and strength to fight for these visions”.

Success can breed success

“I want people to leave the cinema happy,” said south-Tyrolean Hans Hofer with a sheepish grin, after the screening of his film Zweisitzrakete (Two-Seated Rocket). “If you don’t like that, then you don’t need to watch it.” Immediately, a smattering of applause around the room. Obviously this was something these audiences had been missing: Genuine humour, for humour’s sake.

The film was no masterpiece, but it was a fun, idealistic urban fairytale set in sepia-toned, hipster-retro Vienna. Combining actors and comedians from Germany and Austria, the film aims to please. And despite holes in the plot, it does. Besides the “so-called great films, great prizes and great markets, we cannot forget what else is there,” Barbara Pichler had said.

It seemed that the Diagonale was forgetting that success can breed success, attention can breed appreciation, and celebration, where due, can breed inspiration. What is so wrong with celebrating success?

Perhaps it has to be the right kind, as one Austrian Oscar winner, Michael Haneke, was mentioned in virtually every speech, while success stories like Stefan Ruzowitzky or Christoph Waltz that had (merely) found “appreciation” elsewhere were conveniently forgotten. If Austria started recognising its successes for their entertainment value rather than their struggles, it might not be so rare to leave the movies feeling good about, well, anything at all.

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