"The Shine of Day": The Complex Relation Between Life and Stage

in 65th Locarno International Film Festival

by Belinda van de Graaf

The films of Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel are about encounters. In The Shine of Day (Der Glanz des Tages), which was one of the highlighs of the 65th Locarno International Film Festival, two ‘actors’ of different plumage meet. One is a young Austrian theatre actor celebrating great successes with Shakespeare, Goethe, Handke and Jelinek; the other comes from the circus, and has been fighting bears. While following them for a few weeks in the wintry cities of Hamburg and Vienna, we get to know a little more about the complex relation between life and art.

The trained actor is played by 39-year-old Philipp Hochmair, who in real life made a name in the theatres of Hamburg and Vienna, playing Hamlet, Orestes, Mephisto — you name it. In The Shine of Day he is more or less playing himself, dressed as the bold captain of Woyzeck, one of the German classics, when we meet him for the first time.

The other made a life in the circus. He is played by the 62-year-old German Walter Saabel, who in real life travelled with different circuses through Europe, and who had a bear show and knife-throwing act in Italy. Walter Saabel made his acting debut three years ago in Little Girl (La Pivellina), the first feature of the Italian-Austrian directors, who started out as photographers and documentary filmmakers. In The Shine of Day Covi and Frimmel rather brilliantly mix fiction and documentary again, by letting the two completely different showbusiness men play themselves, and by creating the film more or less from improvisation.

In doing so, the filmmakers offer a unique look behind the curtains, into the life of a theatre actor who is gradually losing contact with the real world. Walter turns up on Philipp’s doorstep in Hamburg and later in Vienna. He presents himself as the lost uncle from Italy. He could be the actor’s alter-ego, or his guardian angel. If Philipp is the captain from Woyzeck, then Walter is the poor soldier from Büchner’s play, the one with lower status and his feet in the dirt. The two men feel sympathy for each other, even if their ideas — for instance, about freedom — clash.

Philipp offers Walter his sofa, and when the two men walk and talk, it becomes clear that humanity and morality — the things that all playwrights talk about — do not necessarily lie with the successful actor. It is instead the circus man who goes to help the neighbor and his two kids. They are in deep trouble, without their mother — who did not get a visa for Austria, and had to stay behind in Moldavia.

The big tragedy lies here, in this little apartment in Vienna, where the two kids stay alone while their father goes out working. Walter, the circus man, looks after them. He eats with them, and buys them books about the adventures of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. Simple gestures. But wisdom and humor lie with the old vagabond, whose ‘shine of day’ is sitting by the river, catching fish.

The film is more and more about Walter, his sense of freedom, and the risks that he is taking, possibly as a wake-up call for Philipp who’s doing Werther tomorrow, and then Woyzeck again. As such, it was not Philipp Hochmair, the star of Austrian and German theatre, but Walter Saabel, the non-professional, the circus man with the big moustache, that was — to great acclaim — awarded the prize of best actor in Locarno.