"Well, no", I say. "There’s nothing to be proud of." And I immediately realize how Austrian I sound. "I mean: I didn’t do anything." There. I sound Austrian again. National minority-complex and historical guilt slipping into daily conversations, thank you.
We are standing outside a restaurant during the Hamburg film festival, smoking cigarettes and talking about Michael Haneke. The nice young woman, a director from Beirut, has just congratulated me on the recent international success of Austrian cinema, inviting me to share some pride. I apologize for my reaction and try to explain, more to myself than to her, I guess: "I can’t feel proud about anything to which I didn’t contribute." But maybe I want to say: I don’t even know if I’m Austrian or what being Austrian means.
"So, what are you then?" — Just minutes before, still at the table, another director, from Uruguay, no, Israel, no, Brazil, and of German descent, had thrown that question back at me, without answering it himself. Now, smoking that cigarette, I think of Haneke’s films in a manner of fast forward flashbacks (like those an Austrian might see before they die?), and they set me in a morbid mood, which I love. Contently, I conclude that I might be Austrian after all, as, for example, I don’t find it the least bit awkward that Haneke kept the ’torture couch’ from the set of Funny Games for his own living room, because hey, it’s nice and comfy.
Even more so, with three of my four grandparents being from different countries, I’m actually prototypically Viennese. With a strong and ever-growing generation of young Austrian filmmakers from a so-called "multinational" background, migration is, in fact, a current "fashion topic" at Austria’s film commission and comparable funding institutions, and one that is more popular than any refurbishment of this nation’s historical guilt. In this fortress we call Europe, immigration and the closely related quest for cultural identity is a topic with such a political dimension that we already have to constantly scrutinize and revise its manipulative potential, be it in films or anywhere else.
I recall Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s latest film Abendland (2011), a quietly powerful essay about this multifaceted beast called Europe. And also Arash and Arman T. Riahi come to mind, who have been dealing with the realistic sides of a meltingpot utopia for years now. But suddenly, Haneke is speaking to me again: "Third world cinema is much more interesting now", he said in an interview lately. "Because they have real problems they want to fight against." As much as I agree, I would never deny the problems Austria or its neighboring countries are facing, especially after the financial breakdown, but maybe Haneke and I would agree on a certain Austrian laziness when it comes to revolutions.
I might have been thinking out loud, because now everybody around me is talking about the burger-index. It strikes me to hear once more how precarious living standards are everywhere, and how poverty is a threat to many of us. The dawning New Age of capitalism is indeed a topic Austrian cinema tackled as well, Daniel Hoesl’s Soldate Jeannette (2013) being the most recent example, and let’s not forget that Ulrich Seidl is currently working on his new film, a period piece about a 19th century Austrian Robin Hood called Grasl.
"Film as a profession dealing with language is the perfect playground for impostors", Haneke again tells me somewhere in my head, and I don’t know where he’s hiding, also because I have a very poor sense of orientation. "I’m a terrible tour guide", I warn my co-smokers when they tell me they will attend the Viennale in a few weeks. "I hardly ever find my way and have no idea where I am most of the time."
Maybe I’m not Viennese or Austrian but European, after all, and maybe that’s a feeling I share with a new generation of Austrian filmmakers. And to my defense: Who has the map of Europe in their heads anyway? Suddenly, somebody starts talking about football. Austrians are actually very content with failing, I’m tempted to say. But there my friend from Beirut smiles again, and I swallow no pride.
Alexandra Zawia (@alexandrazawia) is co-editor of the film section of the Wiener Zeitung and a freelance contributor to Ray, Furche and others.