Cathartic Goulash: Two Austrian films at Jameson Cinefest

in 12nd Jameson Cinefest – Miskolc International Film Festival

by Susanne Schuetz

Goodnight MommyFamily dynamics and finding one‘s own  path in the complexity of life between outside pressures and inner motivations were among the main themes of the 19 feature films in the International Competition of the 12th Jameson Cinefest Miskolc. Superworld (Superwelt, 2015) and Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, ich seh, 2014), the two films representing Austria– which was one of the countries in focus in this year’s festival in Hungary’s north-east–also center around this fundamental topic, even though they choose very different approaches and narrative techniques.

A dish of goulash served in a car is the cathartic moment of Superworld, Karl Marcovics’ very gentle and slowly-paced portrait of a seemingly average supermarket worker, wife and mother who comes to question the very basis of her life: Gabi Kovanda (Ulrike Beimpold) seems like an ordinary 50 year old woman who is very settled in her small world that centers around working at the supermarket till, where she always has a smile for her customers, and keeping the household together. She prepares food for her husband Hannes (Rainer Wöss) who works in a building-yard and for her son Ronnie (Nikolai Gemel) who is a soldier. The three family members do not talk much to each other and are rather lonely in their own little bubble. Ronnie likes to play computer games when home and seems detached from his parents, while husband and father Hannes sits silently in front of the television when his wife returns from work. Gabi though is not unhappy with her life, she just is living it. Recently she started to go to a gym class, though, and Hannes asks why she is suddenly wanting to lose weight at her “old age”. Hannes who is in his early fifties, seems to be already preparing for death, his comments suggest.            

When the fridge breaks down he tells Gabi that they might get a new one but not a whole new kitchen set-up: “This one will have to do until the end.” Gabi is not questioning him, but one day her quiet life changes: she suddenly hears voices in her head–it is a visitation from God, although the film cleverly leaves that question open for quite a while so that the viewer might wonder whether she is suffering from a stroke or perhaps that she is losing her mind. Gabi is different now, serene, absent minded, detached. She does not go to work but sets out on long walks, she forgets to cook and does not return home. After a few days, however, the voice of God which she seems to hear stops talking to her. She feels lost, suddenly robbed and punished, but slowly realises that her inexplicable behaviour did shake up her husband into rethinking his own attitude towards life. The absence of his wife helped Hannes to set out on a learning process; he is slowly losing his lethargy and tries to be a good partner for Gabi for once. Not that he talks about his feelings, but he brings her his first home cooked goulash dish out to the car in the field where she is questioning what her life is worth now.        

Superworld is not a religious film, even though it also won the prize of the International Ecumenical Jury in Miskolc. Director Karl Markovics, 52, suggests in his second feature film that any blow of fate or new experience could lead to this redefinition of a relationship. His characters learn not to take anything for granted, to be more open, mindful and attentive towards their partners, family members and friends, to be less selfish and to never stop enjoying what life is offering. Even the little things. Karl Marcovics is an optimist at heart, as his  debut feature  Breathing (Atmen, Austria 2011) already showed. The director who is mainly known as an actor (his performance in The Counterfeiters helped to win this Austrian film an Oscar in 2008) embraces the beauty of life that for him is never ordinary. This is underlined by the precise cinematography of Michael Bindlechner that gives new persepctives to well known settings like parking lots or rural streets and slowly widens its angle. There is no cynicism in Markovics’ storytelling, it is full of hope even though some of his characters– like the enigmatic son Ronny with his almost evil smile for his mother–can be quite sinister.          

Sinister through and through is the debut feature film Goodnight Mommy by Marcovics’ Austrian compatriots Veronika Franz, 50, and Severin Fiala, 30, who previously worked together on the documentary Kern about the idiosyncratic and controversial Austrian filmmaker Peter Kern. Franz and Fiala do not trust family relationships. In Goodnight Mommy the directors, who share a common interest in old horror films, focus on a mother and her eleven year old twin sons who have lost all love for her.              

A TV presenter (Susanne Wuest) is returning to her isolated house in the countryside where the boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) used to roam through cornfields and the forest, exploring caves and playing hide & seek. But mama seems different to her children now, not only because she wears bandages around her head after having surgery because of an accident. She seems colder than especially Lukas remembered, the lad who egging his brother Elias on to mistrust this woman. Together the twins get more and more aggressive towards their mother–and even though some viewers already may spot quite early what the big twist of the story will be it is with gruesome precision that the film makers set their younger cast-members spiralling down a path of severe violence.            

If audience members faint or walk out, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are rather pleased, they say: their modern horror story, about the cruelty that children are capable of, therefore works. The film, which is beautifully shot on 35 millimeter (thanks to producer Ulrich Seidl, Franz’s husband) does mainly want to be playful and entertaining, but it also asks questions about the very foundation of life: the bond between a mother and her children, the importance of love and mutual understanding, the capacity to talk to each other and to care about the possible fears of a child.              

And even more than in Superworld the viewer is confronted by religious symbols, especially wayside crosses that remind the audience of pilgrimages and the hope to be led by God. But God is not present; Franz and Fiala are no optimists.    

Edited by Neil Young