Portrait Of An Artist

in 39th Filmfest München

by Engin Ertan

Claudia Müller’s Elfriede Jelinek – Language Unleashed

“Look at me now!” A young Elfriede Jelinek holds up a cardboard sign, protesting the very limited amount of time allotted to female authors on an Austrian TV show. Her demand to be looked at is ever-so curious from today’s perspective since she long ago retreated from public eye and couldn’t even attend the ceremony to accept her Nobel prize in 2004 due to her agoraphobic condition. So, what does a filmmaker do if their documentary subject is a recluse like Jelinek? Claudia Müller, director of several biographical television documentaries, took a common documentary approach but creatively solved this dilemma in her first full length film. Elfriede Jelinek – Language Unleashed features almost only archive material and starts with this old clip of Jelinek’s televised Austrian protest.

Fortunately, time is not an issue here since Müller mapped out everything perfectly in an obviously thorough pre-production phase. The film doesn’t necessarily follow a chronological timeline throughout, but it knows where to start, where to move on and when to finish. This preciseness might not be very akin to Jelinek, neither is the film as controversial as her writings, but they share a common interest with montage. Jelinek’s early novels were influenced by pop mythologies and cut-up texts, as she says, her introduction to television at the age of 20 was very influential as well. Editing is without a doubt the strongest feature of Müller’s documentary. Here we have a rich amount of archive material, mostly from TV and it is carefully selected and woven together to create a narrative.

Elfriede Jelinek – Language Unleashed is not a straightforward biography, therefore we aren’t given access to everything about the author’s life. Müller is more interested in the conflict caused by the contradiction between what Jelinek aims at with her work and how it is perceived by the majority of the public. This is a timely documentary, because Jelinek’s affinity for using sexually explicit situations and pornography to dissect the power structures in society (despite the backlash from predominantly male critics) could be better understood and sympathized with through the lens of today’s political climate and sensibilities. Also, how the right-wing defames a dissenting artist and intellectual after her international recognition is unfortunately way too familiar and still relevant.

The film ends with Jelinek telling why she stopped giving interviews: “…explaining your work weakens you,” she says. However, Müller’s documentary successfully opens up the world of this controversial and sadly all too often misunderstood artist and makes her work more accessible. This is a relatively fast paced documentary and it’s definitely not only for admirers of Jelinek or literature lovers. Obviously Jelinek gave her blessing to this project, therefore the aforementioned opening shot is perfectly accurate. Look at her, look at her now!

Engin Ertan
Edited by Yael Shuv