Monday 20 March 2023

watchAUT: Eismayer / I Am the Tigress / Vera / The Fox

Following on from Saturday's look at some of the titles screening at this year's watchAUT Austrian Film Festival—which runs from Thursday to Sunday at London's Ciné Lumière, with tickets available here—today we'll run through the remainder of the festival's offerings, beginning with David Wagner's army tale Eismayer.  Wagner's film scooped the International Film Critics' Week Grand Prize at the most recent edition of the Venice Film Festival, and it boasts a fine performance from Gerhard Liebmann as the title character, a closeted drill sergeant who falls for one of his recruits.  Eismayer is a harsh, feared ruler of his men, with his pop-eyed ranting both masking his secret and signalling someone who's seen Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket a few too many times.  While both the film and its main character feel slightly overfamiliar, this is an involving, highly watchable tale, one that presents a credible depiction of military life as it relays the true story of an unlikely romance. 

Documentary I Am the Tigress follows bodybuilder Tischa Thomas as she prepares to leave New York for a competition in Bucharest.  The event marks Thomas' first time outside of the US, and directors Philipp Fussenegger and Dino Osmanović probe deep into the life of this mother and grandmother, in the process creating a portrait that is often as uncomfortable as it is intimate.  Much of the film's running time is devoted to the relationship between Thomas and her coach/friend/factotum Edward, and the late scene between these two on a Florida beach is nothing if not surprising.  Shot over a two-and-a-half-year period, I Am the Tigress has much to say about gender and identity, and Thomas is shown being verbally abused by a stranger on account of her appearance; while watching this unpleasant sequence, it is dispiriting to consider the likelihood that the ignoramus criticising the bodybuilder's physique would have similarly objected back when Thomas weighed 300lbs.  Fussenegger and Osmanović's judiciously edited film is by no means an easy watch, but it's certainly compelling.

Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel's slippery docudrama Vera tracks its title character as she ambles through life in the shadow of her late father, spaghetti western icon Giuliano Gemma.  Following a minor road accident involving 8-year-old Manu, Vera befriends the boy's single father, which at first seems a more rewarding venture than hanging out with her self-absorbed boyfriend, a wannabe filmmaker whose interest in Vera is seemingly fuelled by her money and connections; at one point, he begs her to contact Monica Belluci about starring in his latest project.  Vera's rapport with the young Manu affords her a rare opportunity to talk with someone who doesn't view her as merely the daughter of a celebrity; she also spends time with a few other people, including her sister Giuliana, and a scene with Asia Argento serves to highlight the injustice of being defined by a famous parent (to further confuse matters, Vera appeared in Argento's directorial debut and a couple of films by Asia's father Dario).  Shot on grainy 16mm, Vera is both an affecting portrait of a somewhat lost soul and an intelligent meditation on the complications of secondhand fame.

Hot on the heels of Adrian Goiginger's sophomore feature Above the World comes his third film, The Fox.  Based on the life of the director's great-grandfather, The Fox follows the tale of young Austrian Franz Streitberger, who enlists in the army just a couple of years before the commencement of WW2; upon the annexation of his homeland, Franz is drafted into the Wehrmacht and is deployed in France as German troops tighten their noose on the Allied forces.  Yet despite the war that rages around him, Franz has a major distraction in the form of an orphaned fox cub he's rescued from a forest.  Keeping this arrangement a secret from most of his fellow soldiers, Franz goes to great lengths—including insubordination—to look after the animal, and the two form a deep bond.  The Fox unleashes a devastating one-two in its final reel, and it's difficult to say which of these blows hits hardest.  This is a real gem of a film, and a terrific choice to open this year's watchAUT; although another German-language war movie is currently grabbing all the headlines, the quietly shattering The Fox fully deserves a similarly wide audience.

Darren Arnold