Hell Is Other People

in 8th Reykjavík International Film Festival

by Susanne Schuetz

‘Hell is other people’ says a minor character, quoting Jean-Paul Sartre, in Karl Markovics’ debut film Breathing (Atmen, Austria 2011). An unusual utterance for this carefree worker in Vienna’s city morgue, here meant as a joke directed at the film’s protagonist, an 18-year old prisoner about to be released, worried about his past, future and identity. The Sartre quote is a rather apt description of his feelings — and that of other characters — in the twelve feature films comprising ‘New Visions’, the competition section of the eighth Reykjavík International Film Festival.

When he wrote those words for his play No Exit (Huis Clos, 1944) Sartre did not intend to say that social relationships are impossible. One of the key features of the perception of one’s own self is how we are perceived by others, he stated in a comment on his original sentence. It is therefore the dependence on others and their judgments that he sees as hell. Markovics’ protagonist Roman (Thomas Schubert) might agree. When the film opens, he has just blown his latest chance to fit into normal life: a work experience program as a welder, organized by the juvenile detention centre where he lives. In his next, and final, chance to prove that he can be part of ‘normal’ society, Roman decides to take a job at Vienna morgue. There, he has to deal with the prejudices of his co-workers, who are very skeptical of him. When Roman sees the body of a dead woman who shares his surname, he is struck by the possibility that it could be his unknown mother who gave him up when he was still a baby. Roman becomes determined to locate his real mother and find out why she did not want to keep him. His search also constitutes journey to his inner self. The debut of Karl Markovics, already known as one of Austria’s leading actors (The Counterfeiters / Die Fälscher, 2007), Breathing is the most complete and cinematic film of the ‘New Visions’ selection. The film ends on an optimistic note, unlike many others in the competition which show that hell is much more often found in oneself than in others.

For example, Oslo, August 31st (Oslo, 31. august, Norway, 2011), directed by Joachim Trier, follows Anders (Amders Danielson Lie), a 34-year-old recovering drug addict. The set up is similar to Markovics’ story: it is time for the protagonist to face life after being institutionalized. Anders has completed his rehab successfully, and embarks on his first day away from the clinic. He has a job interview and reconnects with his best friend. But unlike Markovics’ protagonist Roman, this uprooted man is a pessimist, or rather, suffers from severe depression. Caught up in his own inner hell, ‘normal life’ does not exist for him. Although his job interview starts out rather positively, the prospect of getting a job as an editorial assistant at an Oslo magazine does not excite him. He wants no job. Not even love can save him, nor the encouragement of his best friend. There is only one option for him: suicide.

How untreated psychological problems torment the mind is also the topic of Johannes Hammel’s film Follow Me (Folge mir, Austria 2010). The film presents a portrait of Mrs. Blumenthal, played by two different actresses to underline the character‘s growing schizophrenia and social phobia. She lives with her husband and two children in a bleak harbour zone. The world is turning darker and darker around her, and other people seem to act more and more absurdly. Finally, she even ‘infects’ her husband with her growing madness. Follow Me is a disturbing film, shot in a stark black and white that truly depicts another form of inner hell.

Uncertainty about one’s position in life, where one belongs and what to do with one was also a theme in two films dealing with aging. Finding a new calling in retirement, and a meaningful new way of living each day is the concern of Bepi, a former fisherman in Andrea Segre’s warm film Li and the Poet (Io Sono Li, Italy, 2011). Bepi usually meets with his friends, also old men with nothing to do, in a waterfront café in Chioggia, a little town near Venice. When a young Chinese immigrant suddenly starts serving behind the bar, Bepi’s life takes on a new direction: he befriends and tries to help her, but only makes matters worse. As does Hannes, the 67-year-old protagonist in Volcano (Eldfjall, Iceland 2011), who in this debut by Rúnar Rúnarsson has suddenly to care for his severely ill wife. They only had a few harmonious days together after he stopped working as a janitor, before she was afflicted by a stroke. Hell for him will be living on without her.