Lady Bird
Zama
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House by the Desert

Fata morgana

Austria, 2012 | Peter Schreiner
Adrian Martin checks in from Melbourne to report on Fata morgana, and finds that the plotless Austrian film completely betrayes his cognitive apparatus.

Two spaces, mainly. First, a house, arranged in two 'wings' or rows — is it some now unused hotel? — with green trees (seen through black-and-white) visible out a window. Some shots of a river, possibly in the same general area. Second, a desert — sand, a distant horizon, rocks, stretching on forever.

If you stay to the end credits, to the 140th minute of Peter Schreiner's Fata morgana — and many viewers will not — you will learn that there are two shooting locations: Lausitz in Germany in the Sahara in Libya. Which explains something about the making of the work, but nothing about the work itself.

As you watch it, the film is a puzzle — but not one that is wanting you to provide a solution. Whenever any movie goes back and forth between locations as starkly different as these, the viewer's brain tends to a) pull them all together (no matter the logical or logistical difficulty) into one imaginary space or place; or b) try to construe a narrative trajectory: that there are various people in separate geographic spots, but somehow they are all going to meet up, and the dots between the places can then be joined up into lines.

I managed to perform both these mental operations, casually and pretty unconsciously, as I watched Fata morgana. I started seeing — hallucinating — the single, continuous space of a ‘house by the desert' (in homage to Fritz Lang's House by the River, 1950), especially as the two people we see in and around the house (more about them in a moment) are also seen walking, sleeping and talking in the desert sands. And there is something cinema-based, as well as reality-based, in this propensity: namely, that a fata morgana is itself an elaborate desert apparition, what is nicely called a superior mirage that forms on the hot, empty horizon. An imitation of life.

I also was 'thrown' — or led — by the opening scene: three people in a desert, one of them (is it, in fact, director Schreiner? Another source tells me it's Awad Elkish) pontificating, mock-pretentiously, on the need to "find a point of reference... an inner stability." Because I could not yet identify any of these figures as full-blown 'characters' in the film to follow, I took this trio to be some autonomous grouping, out in a desert... and on their way to an encounter (momentous or deflating) with the couple in the house.

Knowing from the first frame that it was a minimalist movie in the lineage of Albert Serra, I predicted — projected — that it would not be until the 70-minute mark that such an encounter actually began to manifest itself: mid-way breaks like this are as popular in art films as in Hollywood blockbusters these days. And at the 70-minute mark, there did seem to be some stirrings of change in the generally monotonous, non-action-based unfolding: a third person, more emphasis on the desert. But here my cognitive apparatus proved to have completely betrayed me. No plot is forthcoming in Fata morgana.

Schreiner's crypto-poetic statement on the sixpack website includes the line: 'My life is like a house on the fringe of the desert where I feel both secure and shut in'. 
So this house-by-the-desert business is his personal fata morgana, too. It is also, evidently, some kind of mental projection — some kind of interiority made exterior. As it seems to be for the two central 'players' of the work, Giuliana Pachner and Christian Schmidt. (A little rummaging in the sixpack site also revealed that a 2006 Schreiner 35mm film, Bellavista, was a previous, 2-hour exploration of Pachner in what might be this same, odd hotel with two wings in Lausitz.) They speak of the desert a lot. Or rather, they speak of silence, stasis, a draining away, the end of all thinking... which, in this context, amounts to the same thing as the desert, the image/symbol/figure/metaphor of the desert.

I thought of the sand dunes (overdubbed with jazz music) that form mysterious interludes or punctuations in Pasolini's Teorema (1968). Eventually, one of PPP's characters will indeed have his naked, insane, screaming rendez-vous with this elemental desert. But is it really a narrative destination? Is this desert all around, or is it in his head? (Happy 66th Birthday, David Bowie.) It's not really a place he could have just driven to. It's always been within him, within us, within the film. And within the medium, too: cinema loves these deserts in which it disappears, is dissolved, expelled. As a filmmaker (David Lean or Lisandro Alonso, it doesn't matter), you want these images, but these images don't want you: the desert abhors mise-en-scène and fiction alike. And this dusty wave of non-love coming off the desert plain is really quite an attraction. A masochistic attraction. Marlene knew it when she kicked off her high heels and strode out across the sands for Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930), and Sternberg knew it when he ended that film on the dispersing void of particles and the whistling wind (especially poignant in crumbling old 16mm prints)...

Fata morgana: two people, a man and woman. I thought of the eternally-against-it, equally unglamorous couple of Hail (2011), and of Alain Badiou's recent declaration that, since absolutely everybody yearns for it and experiences it, love is among the only, the very few, universals. On the other hand: Schreiner's notes assure us that ‘no love story will come out of it. And yet it may'. But when? Like in the snowbound retreat of Philippe Grandrieux's Un lac (2008), we would be silly to ask questions about how these flesh-and-blood, ageing phantoms manage to eat, pay bills, or take a shower. The things that Pachner and Schmidt say to one another (or sometimes just to themselves) in this film, if you pluck them out and string them together, could have been uttered 50 years ago, as the robotic stutterings of an involuntary Surrealist poetry, by Lemmy Caution and Natasha Von Braun: The turning into stones of our emotions ... Forgotten and abandoned at the same time ... We find ourselves in a vacuum of time ... You must have the courage to stand this stillness ... I'm fascinated and completely worn out ... When I open the lid, pain and death escape from it ... Death and blood and a shot ... Anything but our thoughts ... To quit thinking ... Every day we are doubtful about ourselves ... Writing one's name on a wall to leave a trace of one's existence ... and pass on a despair ... How heavy is lightness? What does up and down actually mean? That is just a small selection.

But this is not Alphaville (1965) the film, or even Alphaville the place. Even sympathetic spectators will experience these solemnly uttered statements as lethal boomerangs back onto Fata Morgana itself; and very likely Schreiner himself (as that strange prologue indicated) welcomes, and indeed programmed, this kind of reflexive irony. A typical artworld endgame manoeuvre, although the director's notes suggest that he has loftier things on his mind. The transmission of such things, in the public forum of cinema (and especially during a film festival) is always fragile.

It's a murky film, as feature-length avant-garde experiments, high on texture and low on plot, can sometimes be. It doesn't have the crystalline clarity of a Chantal Akerman non-fiction such as D'est (1993); but, then again, few films (of any sort) have that. There is a scene of sudden rain, crisp and real. There is a camera: it pans super-slowly, left or right, and on its brutal path creates a hundred different, sometimes arresting deframings (at moments reminiscent of Stephen Dwoskin's great testament Age Is...): stray ears, hair clumps, shoulders become as prominent and important as eyes and mouths and faces. The human is always decentred; yet, because it has leaked out into the imaginary desert of cinema, the human is everywhere, uncomfortably, stuck like grout between the frames, decaying and stinking before our eyes. There are landscape shots that achieve such stillness that you take them, for a while, as freeze-frames, but they are not: Schreiner has really found these places where nothing, nothing at all, moves. Not even the wind in the sands, not even the grain of the image. Absolute zero point.

Adrian Martin has contributed the World Wide Angle column to Filmkrant since 2007, and is the Co-Editor of LOLA, now at its 3rd issue: 'Masks'.


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Fata morgana

Filmkrant #351, February 2013

Slow Criticism 2013

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F

F FOR FAKE
LE FABULEUX DESTIN D'AMÉLIE POULAIN
Faccia a faccia
FACE
The Face of an Angel
The Face of Love
FACE/OFF
FACES
Facing Mirrors
FACTORY GIRL
FACTOTUM
THE FACULTY
Fading Gigolo
FADOS
FAIL SAFE
FAILURE TO LAUNCH
FAIR GAME (Andrew Sipes)
FAIR GAME (Doug Liman)
Fair Wind (Fahrtwind)
FAIRUZ — WE HIELDEN ZOVEEL VAN MEKAAR
FAIRY TALE — A TRUE STORY
Faith Connections
FAITHFUL
FAITHLESS
FALCONE
FALKENBERG FAREWELL
THE FALL
FALL TIME
FALLEN
FALLEN ANGELS
A Fallible Girl
FALLING DOWN
DIE FÄLSCHER
FAME
FAMILIA RODANTE
FAMILIE
De familie Slim
FAMILIEGEHEIM
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La famille Bélier
A Family
FAMILY
A Family Affair
The Family Fang
FAMILY FILES
THE FAMILY MAN
A Family Quartet
THE FAN
FANFAN LA TULIPE
FANNY & ALEXANDER
FANTASIA 2000
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Fantastic Four (Josh Trank)
FANTASTIC FOUR (Tim Story)
FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER
FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Les fantômes d'Ismaël
FAR AND AWAY
FAR FROM HEAVEN
Far from the Madding Crowd
FAREWELL
FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE
The Farewell Party
A Farewell to Arms
FARGO
FARINELLI, IL CASTRATO
Fashion Chicks
FAST & FURIOUS
FAST & FURIOUS 5
Fast & Furious 7
Fast & Furious 8
Fast and Furious 6
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS
FAST AND THE FURIOUS 3
FAST FOOD FAST WOMEN
Fata morgana
Fataal (Jesse Bleekemolen over)
FATAL REACTION: BOMBAY
FATAL REACTION: NEW YORK
FATAL REACTION: SINGAPORE
FATELESS
FATHER AND SON (OTETS I SIN)
Father Figures
FATHER OF THE BRIDE PART 2
FATHER'S DAY
FATHERLAND
The Fault in Our Stars
Faust (Aleksander Sokoerov)
FAUST (F.W. Murnau)
FAUST (LECKE FAUST)
FEAR
Fear and Desire
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
THE FEAR INSIDE ME
FEARLESS (Peter Weir)
FEARLESS (Ronny Yu)
Fedora
FEEL THE NOISE
FEELING MINNESOTA
FEESTJE!
FELICE...FELICE...
FELICIA'S JOURNEY
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FÉLIX ET LOLA
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FEMME FATALE
LES FEMMES DE 6ÈME ETAGE
LES FEMMES... OU LES ENFANTS D'ABORD
Fences
Ferdinand
FERIEN
FERNGULLY, THE LAST RAINFOREST
FESTEN
FESTIVAL EXPRESS
Feuchtgebiete
Feuten: het feestje
FEVER PITCH
A Few Best Men
A FEW GOOD MEN
FEW OF US
Le fidèle
Fidelio
A Field in England
FIERCE CREATURES
Fietsen naar de maan
FIETSMUG & DANSMUG
THE FIFTH ELEMENT
The Fifth Estate
FIFTY DEAD MEN WALKING
Fifty Shades Darker
Fifty Shades of Black
Fifty Shades of Grey
FIGHT CLUB
THE FIGHTER
FIGHTING
Fighting fish
THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS
FIGNER, THE END OF A SILENT CENTURY
LE FIL DE L'HORIZON
Fill the Void
LA FILLE D'ARTAGNAN
La fille de Brest
LA FILLE DE L'AIR
LA FILLE DU RER
La fille inconnu
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LES FILLES DU BOTANISTE
A Film About Coffee
FILM IST. A GIRL & A GUN
Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool
A FILM WITH ME IN IT
FILMPJE!
THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY
THE FILMS OF JEAN ROLLIN
THE FILMS OF KENNETH ANGER VOLUME TWO
LE FILS
Le fils de Jean
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LE FILS DE L'EPICIER
THE FILTH AND THE FURY
FIN AOÛT, DÉBUT SEPTEMBRE
THE FINAL CURTAIN
THE FINAL DESTINATION
FINAL DESTINATION
FINAL DESTINATION 2
FINAL DESTINATION 3
Final Destination 5 3D
FINAL FANTASY VII
FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN
Final Portrait
FIND ME GUILTY
Finding Dory
FINDING FORRESTER
FINDING NEMO
Finding Nemo 3D
FINDING NEVERLAND
Finding Your Feet
THE FINE ART OF LOVE
Fine, Thanks (Dakujem, dobre)
The Finest Hours
LA FINESTRA DI FRONTE
Finn
IL FIORE DELLE MILLE E UNA NOTTE
FIORILE
FIRE
FIREFLIES IN THE GARDEN
FIREWALL
THE FIRM (Alan Clarke)
THE FIRM (Sydney Pollack)
FIRST KILL
FIRST KNIGHT
FIRST MISSION
FIRST STRIKE
THE FIRST WIVES CLUB
THE FISH FALL IN LOVE
FISH TANK
Fissa
Fist Fight
Five Came Back
FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN
THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS
THE FIVE SENSES
The Five-Year Engagement
FIXING IN THE SHADOW
FL 19,99
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS
FLAMENCO, FLAMENCO
Flandres
DE FLAT
Flatliners
FLAWLESS
FLED
LA FLEUR DU MAL
UN FLIC
Flight
FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX
FLIGHTPLAN
THE FLINTSTONES
THE FLINTSTONES IN VIVA ROCK VEGAS
FLIPPER
FLIRT (Hal Hartley)
FLIRT (Jaap van Eyck)
FLIRTING WITH DISASTER
Flits & het magische huis 3D
FLOATING LIFE
THE FLOCK
FLODDER 3
Florence Foster Jenkins
The Florida Project
FLORIS
FLUBBER
FLUSHED AWAY
FLY AWAY HOME
Flypaper
Focus (Glenn Ficarra, John Requa)
FOCUS (Neal Slavin)
FOEKSIA DE MINIHEKS
THE FOG
THE FOG OF WAR
La folie Almayer
FOLIE PRIVÉE
FOLLOWING
FONS RADEMAKERS DVD-BOX
FOOL'S GOLD
Footloose
Footnote
FOR FUN
FOR LOVE OF THE GAME
FOR MY BABY
FOR ROSEANNA
For Those in Peril
THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM
THE FORBIDDEN QUEST
The Forbidden Room (Previously Unreleased)
FORCE OF EVIL
FORCES OF NATURE
FOREIGN LAND
The Foreigner
The Forest
FOREVER
FOREVER FEVER
FOREVER YOUNG
Forget Me Not
FORGET PARIS
FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL
The Forgiveness of Blood
FORGOTTEN SILVER
THE FORGOTTEN SPACE
Formula 1
FORREST GUMP
FORTRESS
FORTY GUNS
The Founder
THE FOUNTAIN
THE FOUNTAINHEAD
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FOUR DAYS IN SEPTEMBER
FOUR EYED MONSTERS
THE FOUR FEATHERS
Four Lions
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FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL
FOURBI
THE FOX AND THE CHILD
Foxcatcher
Foxfire
Foxtrot
FRACTURE
FRAGILE
FRAILTY
LA FRANCE
Frances Ha
Francofonia
FRANÇOIS OZON DVD-BOX
Frank (Lenny Abrahamson over)
FRANK CAPRA COLLECTION
FRANK ZAPPA: PHASE II — THE BIG NOTE
Frankenweenie
Franny
FRANS ZWARTJES, THE GREAT CINEMA MAGICIAN
Frantz
Die Frau des Polizisten
FRAUDS
FREAKY FRIDAY
FRED CLAUS
FREDDY THE FROG
FREDDY VS. JASON
Free Birds
Free Fire
Free in Deed
Free Range (Retrospectief Veiko Õunpuu)
Free State of Jones
FREE WILLY
FREE WILLY 2
FREEDOM
FREEDOM WRITERS
Freeheld
DER FREIE WILLE
DIE FREMDE
FRENCH KISS
FREQUENCY
FRESA Y CHOCOLATE
FRESH
FRESH AIR
FRIDA
FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009)
FRIENDS
The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Friends with Benefits
Friends with Kids
Fright Night
THE FRIGHTENERS
DIE FRISEUSE
Frits & Franky
FRITZ LANG COLLECTION
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN
FROM HELL
FROM PARIS WITH LOVE
FROM THE JOURNALS OF JEAN SEBERG
FROST/NIXON
FROWNLAND
Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)
FROZEN (Wang Xiaoshuai)
The Frozen Ground
FROZEN LAND
FROZEN RIVER
Frozen Sing-A-Long
Fruitvale Station
FUCKING ÅMÅL
FUDOH
THE FUGITIVE
DE FÛKE
Fukushima, mon amour
Full Contact
FULL FRONTAL
THE FULL MONTY
FUN WITH DICK AND JANE
THE FUNERAL
FUNNY BONES
FUNNY GAMES U.S.
FUNNY HA HA
FUNNY PEOPLE
Fuocoammare
FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS
THE FURIES
Fury
The Fury of a Patient Man
The Future
Il futuro