Mar 4, 2014

Schwitzkasten (1978)

While West Germany went through an exciting era during the 1970s that managed to grab both critical and commercial attention around the world, the nation’s sister country Austria was going through a somewhat static and generally uneventful period, with directors like Axel Corti (Totstellen, Young Dr. Freud), Maximilian Schell (End of the Game, Tales from the Vienna Woods), Peter Patzak (Parapsycho – Spektrum der Angst, Kassbach – Ein Portrait), Wilhelm Pellert (Jesus von Ottakring), and Valie Export (Mann & Frau & Animal, Invisible Adversaries) being some of the more notably, but hardly world famous, directors of that period in Schluchtenscheisser cinema history. Oddly, one of the most important yet now largely forgotten figures of Austrian cinema during the 1970s, John Cook (1935-2001), was not Austrian at all but a Canadian fashion photographer turned minimalist filmmaker who was, in his own weird words, “Viennese by choice.” Despite being ‘Viennese by choice,’ Cook had no problem callously criticizing his adopted city as demonstrated by the snide remark, “To live in Vienna, you either have to be cynical or stupid,” which is made by a ‘character’ (aka alter-ego) played and penned by the auteur in the documentary-like work Langsamer Sommer (1976) aka Slow Summer. Immigrating to Vienna in the late-1960s, Cook made four films (penning four and directing three of those four) between 1972 and 1982 before becoming fed up with the increasingly bureaucratic film subsidy system in Austria and decided to leave Vienna and filmmaking altogether. Arguably, the most accomplished work Cook ever directed was his social realist work Schwitzkasten (1978) aka Clinch aka Sweat Box, which would be the director’s first attempt at directing a ‘proper’ film (Cook's first work, Ich Schaff’s Einfach Nimmer (1973) aka I Just Can’t Go On, was a documentary that was only about 50 minutes and his second work, Langsamer Sommer (1976) aka Slow Summer, was shot on black-and-white Super 8 flick stock) that actually had a discernible storyline and would be seen by people aside from cineastes and leftist activists. Once again focusing on the Austrian Lumpenproletariat like his previous works but adapted from the novel Das Froschfest written by Communist Party of Austria member Helmut Zenker, Schwitzkasten certainly suffers from the sort of cardboard ‘workers’ message typical of works by German New Cinema directors of that same era, but thankfully it has a genuine sort of warmth and empathy for the loser ‘everyman’ protagonist that films by pedantic avant-gardists like Jean-Mari Straub, Helke Sander, Alexander Kluge, and related cappuccino commies lack. 

 Hermann Holub (Hermann Juranek) is a short blond man in his 30s suffering from ‘Weltschmerz’, although being an uneducated fellow, he probably does not know what that word means, and like a character from a Fassbinder flick, he has a hard time expressing his pain, so he is prone to acting out irrationally and violently when he gets angry. Like most of his friends, Hermann is a lazy ‘gardener’ who works for the local Viennese city council and with his equally crude and unsophisticated co-employees, he verbally sexually assaults any half-attractive woman that might pass his animal-like gaze. When Hermann and his friends start aggressively hitting on a Catholic chick who is looking for a rosary that she lost in a park, the devout lady calls them “rotten shitheads” and “calls the wrath of the Lord” on them. Hermann has a part-time girlfriend of sorts named Vera Pausinger (Christa Schubert), but that does not stop him from patronizing prostitutes and attempting to screw his friend's girlfriend. One night after making love with his girlfriend, Hermann gets out of bed in the middle of the night and gets dressed, thus making poor Vera cry. When a new engineer’s delegate is appointed at Hermann’s work, he decides to quit as the new man given the position, Larry Chalupa, “lives up the Engineer’s ass,” so he gives his friends his farewell by calling them, “idiots” and leaves the lousy position forever. Naturally, as a grown ass old man who still lives with his parents, jobless bum Hermann faces scrutiny from his father (Josef Boselmann), who demands he seek new employment asap. Hermann goes to his only successful friend for help, a pretentious prick writer named Ehrlich (Franz Schuh), but his friend is a stuck up scumbag that pretends to allow him to have sex with one of his concubines, but when the unemployed gardener goes to seal the carnal deal and is half-undressed, the novelist barges in, cock blocks him, and demands he go pick up something for him at the store (rather wisely, Hermann opts for using the money on a prostitute). 

 When Hermann’s semi-successful brother (Werner Juranek), who walks around arrogantly in a fancy black suit and narcissistically admires himself while incessantly combing his hair in front of the mirror, confronts him about his lack of employment (Hermann openly admits he is not even bothering to look for new work), stating, “You’re just a lazy dog. Look at me. There. Look at me. A suit made to measure. Our boss had them made for us because this year we’ve sold much more than last year. All you’ve got to be nowadays is efficient, that’s all,” the down-and-out ex-gardener loses his cool and leaves the family home abruptly. Unfortunately for him, the brother follows Hermann outside and unloads a couple bullets out of his handgun, which angers the hapless gardener so much that he brutally beats his bro to a bloody pulp. Naturally, Hermann passively attempts to evade justice by hiding at his girlfriend Vera’s flat, but the cops soon pick him up and he spends some time in jail due to a minor prior conviction until his court date arrives, where he is given 3 years probation. Desperate for somewhere to live aside from his parents'
 cramped home, Hermann convinces Vera to let him move in and on the same night she reveals that she has been impregnated by another man, and since she is 33 and is afraid she might not ever again get the chance to have kids due to her age, she decides to keep the kid. Taking an underpaying job as a delivery driver, Hermann ironically ends up working with his enemy Larry Chalupa again, but they both agree that when it comes to working that an “Aryan calm is called for” and that there should be “no Jewish hassle.” When Vera jokes about getting a divorce despite the fact she is not married, Hermann states, “let’s first get married and then divorced.” Indeed, Hermann and Vera end up getting married despite the fact that bride is pregnant with the child of another man. Since they do not have enough witnesses for the marriage (neither Hermann’s father nor brother bother to attend the wedding), Hermann pays an unwitting Canadian who does not speak German a couple bucks to act as witness at the wedding, which takes place at a sterile court house. In the end, Hermann’s female boss Frau Gretl (Johanna Froidl) congratulates the newlyweds after the wedding with a bouquet of flowers, but she ultimately fills the lovers with a bit of unease after discussing her own failed marriage. Vera tells Hermann’s boss that when it comes to money that, “We’ll manage, somehow,” to which Gretl soundly replies, “Well, you must. If only for the child’s sake.” In the final scene, Hermann stands outside all by his lonesome while surrounded my beers. Undoubtedly, the viewer gets a foreboding feeling while thinking about Hermann and his wife’s future. 

 Undoubtedly, in its unpretentious gritty prole realism, Schwitzkasten is certainly comparable to the works of ‘no bullshit’ German filmmakers like Roland Klick (Bübchen, Supermarkt), Klaus Lemke (Rocker, Arabian Nights), Uwe Frießner (The End of the Rainbow aka Das Ende des Regenbogens, Baby), and Iranian exile Sohrab Shahid Saless (Ordnung aka Order, Utopia). In placing Schwitzkasten in the context of Austrian cinema history, the Museum of Modern Art wrote: “Today, the film is considered one of the few undisputed masterpieces of the New Austrian Cinema: a freewheeling, tender, and strangely humorous portrait of working-class (and out-of-work) lives. At the time, however, Cook’s genial and unpretentious approach was remarked upon only by the most ardent critics, who compared it with that of Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache.” Personally, I think it says more about the sorry state of post-WWII Austrian cinema than expatriate auteur John Cook’s actual talents as a filmmaker, as Schwitzkasten is certainly nothing new nor original, but a vaguely bright light in a country with a mostly marginal cinema history. Viennese film critic Dominik Kamalzadeh also paid tribute to the film when he wrote of Cook's film: “Clinch is no longer a formal hybrid but finds its own modus operandi: neorealism, Vienna style. The film is lyrical, but down-to-earth, its tone is precise without crossing the border to the social grotesque as so many Austrian films unfortunately do. And above all: it shows solidarity with the main protagonist without turning him into a poster hero.” Indeed, protagonist Hermann is certainly no hero and definitely not a winner, but a miserable and pathetic man that is like millions of other people in his country and that is exactly what makes a Schwitzkasten a semi-important work. One must also credit John Cook for opening the door for later culturally pessimistic Austrian realists like Ulrich Seidl (Tierische Liebe aka Animal Love) and Michael Glawogger (Das Vaterspiel aka Kill Daddy Good Night, Whores' Glory), whose exceedingly grotesque realism make a film like Schwitzkasten seem like it was made for PBS. That being said, what probably makes Schwitzkasten most disturbing for modern viewers is that it demonstrates that things have only gotten all the more worse since Cook’s film was released some 35+ years ago. After all, Schwitzkasten does not feature a single person wearing a turban (let alone a single foreigner from the third world), white single mothers with mulatto babies, rambling crackheads, nor illiterate wiggers. Undoubtedly, you would be hard-pressed to find a young person nowadays like Schwitzkasten protagonist Hermann who is willing to step up and act as the father of a kid that is not his. 

-Ty E

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