MIGRANTS: Two short Austrian documentaries offer varied glimpses into the experiences of elderly, post-war migrants and their lives built in its capital city, Vienna.

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Neil Young
Young is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: April 18, 2019

Far From Past / The Book of Sabeth

Nicole FoelsterlFlorian Kogler

For much of the 20th century Austria was, in geo-political terms, a crucial fulcrum in the European landscape, its former imperial capital Vienna actually located (then as now) further east than Prague and Zagreb. Partly because of its central location and outstanding transport links—one happy legacy of the Austro-Hungarian days—it remains a crossroads through which migrants and refugees pass en route to further destinations. But some of them do elect to stay, including the protagonists of two outstanding short new documentaries, which were showcased at the Diagonale, Austria’s national film-festival, in the country’s second city of Graz this March.

Far From Past

Nicole Foelsterl’s Far From Past is a welcome addition to the increasingly crowded sub-genre of cinema in which filmmakers train their cameras on their own elderly relatives—demographic trends, especially in affluent places like Austria, mean that most young documentarians now have at least one or two potential protagonists present in their family tree. In most instances, the filmmakers are coyly reticent about acknowledging the blood-bond within the work itself; Foesterl is commendably direct and open about both this relationship and the nature of her process.

«You can only see half of me, Nicole… you can’t see all of me!» her grandmother Marianne Schneider complains in the opening seconds, as Foelsterl fiddles with her camera, the pair sitting at Schneider’s kitchen table to record an interview about the latter’s unusual life. A member of the German-speaking «Swabian» minority in Hungary, Schneider was 18 when word of the advancing Soviet army (presumably some time in 1944 or 1945) caused her family to flee, first to Dresden and then to Austria, where she has, it seems, quietly resided ever since.

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Far From Past a film by Nicole Foelsterl

The Schneiders, as Marianne is careful to point out, were classed as «Deutschenfolk» —but that doesn’t mean that they were Nazis: a distinction that may not, of course, have been grasped by the boisterous denizens of the Red Army. «If I tell you everything, then you have it on film,» sighs the nonagenarian granny, but Foelsterl’s film is not really about compiling objective testimony for the benefit of future generations.

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