This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival, which ran from 25 October to 7 November. Under the direction of Hans Hurch, it was a terrifically eclectic festival, very much aimed at audiences rather than the film industry. And as a city, Vienna is hard to beat for film, with a surprising number of excellent independent cinemas.
To commemorate the anniversary, this year’s retrospective was dedicated to the Vienna-born director Fritz Lang, offering an opportunity to watch both the highs (1955’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and lows (1942’s Hangmen Always Die! ) of his staggering career. There was also a tribute to Michael Caine, and a very special evening with the experimental director Peter Kubelka, who presented his new work, Monumenta, in front of a home audience.
Five female filmmakers were also honoured with a programme devoted to their films, which included the debut from actress Amy Seimetz, Sun Don’t Shine (2012), as well as rare films by the experimental filmmakers Colleen Fitzgibbon and Narcisca Hirsh, Mati Diop and shorts by Kurdwin Ayub. There was also a special focus on horror, ‘They Wanted to See Something Different’ (a line taken from The Hills Have Eyes, 2006), which saw double bills of The Thing (1982) and The Thing from Another World (1951), plus a host of midnight screenings, including Alien (1979) and Deliverance (1972).
Although it was impossible to see even a fraction of the movies screening at the festival, three new features stood out, based in large part on some excellent performances.
Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s The Shine of Day (Der Glanz des Tages), which won the prize for best Austrian film, blurs the line between documentary and fiction to cast a light on an intimately revealing encounter between two very different men. Philipp Hochmair (both performers essentially play themselves) is a well-known theatre actor, his life consumed by the demanding roles that he adopts on stages in Hamburg and Vienna; the audience is given a glimpse of a life spent learning lines, rehearsing, performing. For Philipp, acting is a compulsion that overshadows the realities of everyday life. But the arrival of his estranged uncle, played by Walter Saabel – circus performer, knife thrower and bear wrestler – who is trying to reconnect with his family and his own difficult past, and his sudden involvement with a desperate neighbour force Philipp to engage with the real world. There’s a terrific chemistry between the two very charismatic actors, and with much of the dialogue improvised, the film feels like a rare, touchingly honest human drama.
Elie Wajeman’s impressive debut, Alyah, stars Pio Marmaï as Alex, who sells drugs in the Parisian suburbs to make money, mostly used to pay off his brother’s debts. Isaac, fucked up but still charming (perfectly played by the writer/director Cédric Kahn) is a burden, and Alex discovers an opportunity to escape when he hears about a cousin who’s opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv. But first, he has to confront painful family ties and rediscover his neglected heritage in order to pass the ‘alyah’ and move to Israel. It’s a brooding, compelling film that charts its own path between the two poles of French cinema – the gritty, banlieue-set realism and the fairy-tale world of the Parisian elite – to conjure up something surprisingly original.
Rebecca Thomas’s Electrick Children stars Julia Garner as a 15-year-old who has spent her life living in a fundamental religious community in Utah. Her world is turned upside down when she finds a hidden music cassette, with only one song – a cover of ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ – shortly before she discovers that she’s pregnant. Either too traumatised or too naive to acknowledge who abused her, she convinces herself that the singer on the tape must be the father of her child, and runs away to Las Vegas to find him. It’s a compelling film that perfectly captures that moment in your adolescence when you heard that song, or saw that film, that suddenly seemed to change everything. And while the plot might seem a little absurd, Thomas does a brilliant job mixing humour with something much deeper, while Garner beautifully portrays Rachel’s wide-eyed innocence, and growing self-awareness.