Ruzowitzky Returns a Hero

Meeting up with Austria’s Oscar-Winning Film Director at the Luggage Carousel

Stefan Ruzowitzky

Stefan Ruzowitzky posed jubilantly with his Oscar when he returned from Hollywood on March 3. | Photo: A. Tuma

As he walked towards me with a smirk on his face that had “OSCAR” written all over it, I still couldn’t grasp the series of events that had led me to meeting Stefan Ruzowitzky for an interview at the Vienna International Airport. In the last 10 days, we had filed several requests with Austria’s first Oscar-winning filmmaker since 1968, all of which had remained unanswered. Then on Monday morning, Mar. 3, I was arriving back in Vienna from a weekend trip, contemplating how to fill some remaining holes in my story, when my cell phone rang:

“Rutzowitzky is flying in from Prague in one hour; can you be there?”

Be there? I was there.

I checked the screens and indeed, there was a plane arriving from Prague in an hour. For several weeks, all my calls had been intercepted by his voice mail; and now, after a fortnight of frustration, I heard a curious:

“Hallo?” This was a man who clearly hadn’t adjusted to the intricacies of super stardom.

I gasped for air as my luggage wheeled past me on the conveyer belt. I explained who I was; Ruzowitzky naturally assumed I was outside, behind the barrier, in the arrivals hall with the other 32 million reporters.

“Well, I know some of your colleagues are there too, so just ask your questions, and I will see what I can do in the hubbub.”

“No, you don’t understand,” I explained. “I’m inside the gate, waiting for the luggage at the conveyer belt myself!”

He laughed heartily, perhaps not knowing if this was truly a coincidence, or I was just a clever reporter. He must have known it would be a great opportunity for me, to have a chance to talk to him alone before the sliding doors opened, and he would be face to face with the huge quivering throng of media, positioned to pounce. One ORF team
managed to breach the barrier and joined me at Conveyer Belt 6, where he was expected to pass, with TV camera ready. Security caught on to them within minutes, however, while I held on tight to my still-valid boarding pass.

He emerged from the long hallway, I waved, and we greeted one another cordially. As promised he paused and rested his hands on the trolley, as if in the mood for a cup of coffee.

My first question emerged out of sheer curiosity: What was it like at the Oscars?

“Well,” he said, taking a breath and beaming from ear to ear, as if his face would crack, “the red carpet is truly an experience. But once you’re inside, it’s much smaller than I expected. It’s more the fact that you know that millions are watching on their TV sets that’s intimidating.”

Although word on the street was that he was the favorite, he seemed reluctant to take anything for granted.

“I didn’t want to prepare a speech at all,” he said, “but then the Oscar-savvy personnel suggested that I really should. They said that the attention and lights once you’re up there can be so “flashy” that people have choked. It’s a speech you probably have the chance to make only once in a lifetime, so I really didn’t want get it wrong.”

I was interested in the moment when he was asked up on stage. We had all followed the event on television, and it was an eerie feeling watching the clips from an Austrian/German film, with his Austrian name called as a nominee, especially because it was followed by “and the winner is…”

Ruzowitzky’s eyes were alight; he was obviously still in awe of the moment.

“It sent shivers down my spine,” he admitted, shrugging his shoulders in disbelief. “It’s an incredible feeling, realizing that moment that you are being awarded the highest honor in the film business, that you are now part of the elite.”

I realize that this is all just as new for Ruzowitzky, as it would be for any of us. He is far from being a Hollywood celebrity; he is like a big kid who’s “fondest dream has come true,” as he put it in an interview with derStandard shortly after the awards.

First and foremost he is a family man, a movie lover, a passionate director and a happy person. As dreary as this sounds, it explains why he has no scripted answer to questions like:

“What does your success mean for the Austrian movie industry?” He has been asked this question repeatedly and has come up with various answers. When I asked him on that day he gave me an almost weary answer:

“Hasn’t my winning an Oscar in the name of Austria already changed this country’s movie landscape significantly?”

There is clearly a duality in what the award signifies to Ruzowitzky vs. what the media would like it to mean.  They would like to hear about the prosperity and the flourishing of Austrian film on an international level that is sure to follow, about Ruzowitzky moving to Hollywood and dragging Austria along behind onto the international movie stage.

And Ruzowitzky’s own future?

“Go home and kiss my kids when they get home from school,” he says, laughing. This is clearly not a joke. And his current project, entitled “The Witch Lilli,” is in fact a children’s movie and nothing like The Counterfeiters. It also has no aspirations to match its success. In fact the only common feature is that the two films are both directed by a man who is in love with his profession, and who has now been awarded the highest honor the industry has to give.

When he finally emerged into the Arrivals Hall, reporters swarmed from every side, pleading and begging like an elementary school class on a field trip to the zoo. Everyone wanted to see the Oscar. I didn’t make much of it at first; seeing it on TV had satisfied my curiosity for the overly glorified half-meter of gold. He zipped open the top bag of his two-piece hand luggage, revealing a zebra cloth that covered the remaining contents.

He drew the statue out slowly, carefully unwrapping the cloth. And when the golden statue finally emerged, it’s full length slightly bent like an athlete inclining in prayer, was suddenly so exciting, I would have liked to hold the moment forever. All eyes clung to it, flashes zapped and the heat of about seven camera beam lights narrowed in on the shiny, triumphant figure that materialized before us and granted world fame and recognition. Ruzowitzky became a the pedestal for a myth larger than life, every flash reflecting in the polished golden curves, dipping the arrivals hall of the little Vienna airport in a golden shimmer. A massive crowd had gathered around us, Ruzowitzky rotated once, twice, I think even three times, to allow every photographer the best shot.

It was a magic moment, just us and the Oscar.

Ruzowitzky admitted that the Hollywood machinery did a lot to manufacture the myth, the glory around it. But he also had to admit that it was now his passport to the world of top movie makers.

As he proceeded down the corridor, the Oscar tucked away, arm in arm with his wife and aunt on each side, I had seen enough. I wasn’t going to join the vultures eavesdropping on a mini family reunion.

Regardless of all the “constructed hype” the Hollywood machinery can be accused of, and despite my own awe when faced with an Oscar, it had gone to a man with the right set of beliefs, moral conduct and attitude towards his business. It felt good seeing him vanish down the alley along with his “new friends,” knowing that he will handle this honor the right way.

Once he gets used to it.

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