Language Unleashed. The title captures perfectly the two outstanding, extraordinary features of the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, who in 2004 was the first German-speaking female writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her mastery in releasing the unknown potentials of language as her expressive means and bravery in speaking freely, disregarding social and cultural constraints. The first quality is at the core of writing as a creative activity: articulating one’s unique, idiosyncratic, individual voice by using the commonly known language, defined by strict rules governing the grammar as well as, especially in German, the composition of words. In her diverse texts, ranging from poems, novels, dramas, compositions, screenplays, radio plays, and libretti to journalistic texts and essays, Jelinek has managed to create a distinct rhythm by modularly recomposing the words. This rhythm governs her writings and, as several of her texts are read off-screen, defines the flow of this film, so it is worth attentively listening to it even if you do not speak German. The language unleashed also refers to Jelinek’s responsibility and courage in addressing some of the best-kept Austrian secrets, from sadistic sexual practices of petty-bourgeois married couples to the Nazi past of the prominent members of the post-WW2 Viennese elite.
Deeply hidden secrets are part of the cultural mythology of Austria and its capital Vienna, Jelinek’s hometown. There, the rules indeed seem to be the leashes. The intense history of avant-garde art coming from Austria is certainly proof of that. Jelinek provides a plausible explanation, portraying Vienna as the home of diverse extremes which often intertwine. For example, her own family was divided between a devoted Catholic mother and a Jewish father with strong ties to the Austrian Social Democratic party. While her mother had to cope with Social Democrats visiting their house, her father, on the other hand, had to accept that Elfriede, their only child, was sent to a convent boarding school at her earliest age. The outcomes have not always been benign. As she herself reveals, her writing carer started as she, still a child, began inventing lies to please her demanding mother. The film is composed of recordings of Jelinek’s public performances on different occasions, providing a plentitude of different images. Thus it reveals her skills in designing her appearance and her capacity to be playing with public reception of herself. Her 1983 novel The Piano Teacher reached world fame when another Austrian genius Michael Haneke made it into film, yet its’ frank depiction of the teacher’s masochistic self-injury also caused negative reactions. You will enjoy Jelinek’s wit in presenting bleeding as common for her family, claiming that blood “always comes out in my family” from the saints on the religious portraits adored by her maternal grandmother and her Jewish relatives who were murdered during WW2.
The director, Claudia Müller, has already made documentaries about innovative female artists. For example, she portrayed the legendary visual media artist VALIE EXPORT. VALIE EXPORT and Jelinek have had the same predecessors, the Vienna Group of experimental writers from the 1950s. They are both contemporaries of Vienna Actionism, an avant-garde movement active in Austria in the 1960s and 1970s. Jelinek was not an active member, but she shares with these movements the meta-critical position that demands the artist to observe and critically reflect on one’s actions and works. Director Müller enabled Jelinek to show her mastery in interpreting her work. Thanks to the precise and well-informed selection, we also learn that Jelinek adopted a postulate that Sigmund Freud, another celebrated Viennese, developed a century before concerning his discovery of the unconscious. Due to the unconscious, claimed Freud, a human being is not a master in their own house, meaning they can’t control their thoughts. Jelinek incorporated this in her writing about the falsity of the “I”, claiming the “I” “isn’t the master of its own house anyway, at best it is the housekeeper”. This determined her overall approach to literary fiction and the ambition to “show my characters, not as being in charge, but rather at the mercy of political and social mechanisms.” Far from being absent, the director sublimely guides the narrative up to the point when Jelinek herself is in the role of the characters of her writings. From openly speaking up in a desperate attempt to thoroughly explain her work to complete silence as the only possibility to resist.
The film’s narrative spans between two written messages. The message at the beginning is part of Jelinek’s early actions. Written on a sheet of paper covering her face, it explains that in one hour-long program, 10 minutes have been reserved for women writers, and as 760 of them have been registered, this leaves exactly 0,8 seconds for her. She invites the viewer to “Look at me NOW” and briefly removes the sheet. The message at the end comes from the public. It is a message published on billboards as part of the election campaign by the Viennese branch of the Austrian Freedom Party, asking, “Do you love Jelinek (and other public figures of the Austrian left) or arts and culture?” This message affirms her deepest fears about appearing in public, but it also proves her courage. Because there is a third message that plays a crucial role in this film, it is a placard that one Sunday morning appeared near Oberwart in Austria′s eastern-most province of Burgenland, reading “Roma go back to India”. The placard, actually a pipe bomb, killed four Roma men as they attempted to remove it. Many media presented the event as an accident. Politicians speculated that it was part of the victims’ illegal activities. Jelinek defined it as “the most catastrophic event in the Second Republic, a targeted and planned quadruple political murder.” By this, she earned the hatred of the Freedom party and the accusation that she “fouls her own nest”.
More than 20 years have passed since this racial assassination. If we think about what followed, how migrants on the borders of the EU have been treated in the last decade, and what is still happening to them, say, in the Mediterranean sea, one is clear. Not enough people reacted as Jelinek did at the time. In a certain way, this documentary, however late, came at the right time. It shows, not without irony that Elfriede Jelinek realized the dream of her mother, who wanted her daughter to be unique and better than anyone else.