Saturday 18 March 2023

watchAUT: Frau im Mond / Rubikon / Matter Out of Place

For its second edition, watchAUT Austrian Film Festival showcases some of the best new cinema and a silent-era classic from—you guessed it—Austria.  The first watchAUT, which took place in late 2019 at London's Picturehouse Central, included such prestigious titles as Marie Kreutzer's The Ground Beneath My Feet and Jessica Hausner's Little Joe.  For watchAUT 2023, the festival shifts to another London venue, South Kensington's Ciné Lumière, where it runs from Thursday to Sunday (click here for tickets).  Among the titles on offer are David Wagner's military tale Eismayer, bodybuilding documentary I Am the Tigress, and Adrian Goiginger's WW2 movie The Fox, the latter of which opens the festival on Thursday evening.  The 2023 lineup is rounded out by Asia Argento-starrer Vera, environmental documentary Matter Out of Place, and two science fiction films made nearly a century apart.   

The earlier of these SF films, Fritz Lang's Frau im Mond, serves as the festival's closing film, and this year's watchAUT provides a rare opportunity to see Lang's final silent movie in its full-length version with live piano accompaniment.  Based on the eponymous novel by the director's wife Thea von Harbou (who also wrote the script), this 1929 space exploration epic is still a remarkable work, and its prescience is quite breathtaking; that the film contains the first ever countdown to a rocket launch is nothing short of incredible.  While the acting in silent films can often be rather broad, Frau im Mond features some fine performances, with the best turn coming from German star Willy Fritsch as the entrepreneur who acts as the catalyst for the lunar mission.  Variously known as Woman in the Moon and Girl in the Moon, this near three-hour spectacle is not without its lulls, but its inclusion here is most welcome—especially considering how the film has long taken a back seat to Lang and von Harbou's other science fiction masterpiece, Metropolis

Sticking with the space theme, Leni Lauritsch's debut feature Rubikon is a thoughtful sci-fi movie which takes place in a time when the earth has been polluted beyond all habitability.  Virtually all of Lauritsch's claustrophobic film takes place inside the space station of the title, where a soldier, a scientist and a geneticist attempt to find consensus on a critical issue: should they head back to earth in the hope of helping any survivors, or remain in the safety of their fully self-reliant environment?  It's a decent premise, and the film has its share of tense moments; while it's perhaps a bit too long for what is essentially a three-hander centring on one core argument, Rubikon is an inventive and generally engaging affair, and Lauritsch and her crew work wonders with the €3 million budget.  There are times when the movie recalls William Eubank's haunting 2011 film Love, another microbudgeted science fiction effort that tends towards the cerebral.  While Rubikon contains more than a passing nod to green issues, environmental concerns are front and centre in another festival selection: Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Matter Out of Place.

Geyrhalter's impressive documentary opens with one of the most arresting sequences in recent cinema: a digger scoops away at a small section of green field, and it isn't long before the topsoil gives way to a jumble of barely-degraded landfill, including glass, plastic, tyres, and even a scrap of newspaper on which the type is still legible.  None of this makes for a pretty sight, but the real horror comes from learning that they stopped burying waste here in the 1970s, which is when a nearby incinerator was built.  After this dialogue-heavy opening—two observers comment on the various items that are unearthed—Matter Out of Place is a largely wordless affair until it gets to its final sequence, which records the painstaking cleanup operation at Nevada's Burning Man festival, an event which coined the phrase that lends the film its title.  Between these bookends, Geyrhalter's film goes on a globetrotting odyssey as it documents the ways in which different countries deal with waste collection and disposal.  It's an engrossing film, one in which the director's stunning cinematography stands at odds with the detritus on show.

Darren Arnold