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.

It is really much more a portrait of this flinty, life-worn lady in what she herself admits are her final years («my life is over,» she sighs). Replicating the faulty prism of memory through which Schneider views her past, Foelsterl combines interview footage with archival materials: 8mm home movies transferred to grainy VHS video, plus an earlier interview she filmed back in 1998—when the younger Mrs. Schneider was also concerned with specifics of representation («you can’t even see me!» she laughs.”)

Far From Past is a complex and ambiguous work despite its deceptively brief running time

Far From Past is a complex and ambiguous work despite its deceptively brief running time, conveying the sometimes-prickly nature of the interactions between the older and younger women. Schneider is shown in disgruntled mode reading about refugees and migrants arriving in Austria expecting the government to look after them; the irony of such an unwelcoming perspective, given Schneider’s own experiences in the 1940s, is left unspoken, for the viewer to pick up.

At one point Foelsterl becomes frustrated when Schneider won’t show her how to make a traditional dumpling dish; Schneider is exasperated, worried that her granddaughter will foul up the recipe at a crucial early stage. At another juncture, Schneider breaks off from the filming to answer the telephone; Foelsterl (who performs her own editing duties) shows herself sitting alone at the kitchen table—primary locus of this very domestic character-study—her face a mask of bemused resignation as she realises, not for the first time, that her grandmother is at least as much of a «director» of this project as she is herself.

The Book of Sabeth

Schneider, for all her (mostly) benign interference in Foelsterl’s project, comes across as relatively self-effacing, a countrywoman unaccustomed to and uncomfortable in the spotlight. Elisabeth Arkadevna Netzkowa Mnatsakanjan (b.1922), star of Filmakademie Wien student Florian Kogler’s The Book of Sabeth, has by contrast been in proximity to individuals of global renown for much of her long life and enjoyed considerable attention and acclaim in her time. «You’re endowing me with fame but I was never famous,» she modestly informs her former pupil Andreas Schmiedecker—whose visits to her cluttered Vienna apartment are the main subject of Kogler’s half-hour film.

But as she points out photographs of her friend, Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll, her school-contemporary Mstislav Rostropovich, and her mentor Dmitri Shostakovich, it quickly becomes evident that Netzkowa—born in Soviet-era Baku, Azerbaijan, and who defected to Austria in search of greater artistic liberty circa 1975—has been moving in some decidedly high-powered circles. As we learn, her own achievements were considerable: an acclaimed poet, skilled artist and talented pianist, she was awarded the Andrei Bely Prize, one of the most important awards in Russian-language literature, in 1975.

the analogue format proves an effective, economic corollary to the faulty persistence of human memory.

Responding to Netzkowa’s question about why Schmiedecker and Kogler wanted to film her in the first place, Schmiedecker responds, «You had an interesting life, and always say interesting things.» Netzkowa’s quick reply: «maybe it will help me live a bit longer…» Kogler generally keeps his camera quite close to Netzkowa’s face, eager to pick up every word of dialogue and every facet of her expressive features, while simultaneously emphasising the infirmity-imposed confinement she evidently accepts with reluctant dignity. We leave the Vienna apartment only once, for a brief interlude at Vienna’s Albertina gallery, where some of Netzkowa’s beautiful original self-illustrated manuscripts are stored and handled with suitably holy reverence by the white-gloved hands of functionaries.

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The Book of Sabeth, a film by Florian Kogler

Otherwise, the emphasis is on Elisabeth’s restricted circumstances, and how physical constraints have forced her to place even further importance on the life of the mind. Her mission, or as she puts it, her «task,» is to «impart the best of Russian culture to young people.» «The beautiful thoughts and ideas of great minds» such as her beloved Dostoyevsky are, she believes, crucial to no less than «the survival of humankind.»

It thus becomes evident how, in the mid-seventies, she found the climate of intellectual repression of the USSR so intolerable that she joined what was then a very illustrious dissident diaspora, finding a haven in Vienna—then as now a «stopover» for refugees. The first person she met in the city was a lady of similar years, Lucia, who is shown paying a visit for tea and discussion, the pair maintaining their warm friendship despite the challenges posed by their onerous physical decline. Such interactions, including the visit of her ex-pupil Schmiedecker, clearly help to keep Netzkowa going with her centenary now just around the corner. «Maybe my life wasn’t a complete waste,» she muses, looking back on her accomplishments with modest pride.

In the finest short films, just as at the final phases of protracted lives, every split-second really does count.

The Book of Sabeth concludes on a poignant but unexpectedly uplifting note as Netzkowa silently watches a VHS tape of her acceptance speech for the Bely Prize (as with Far From Past, the analogue format proves an effective, economic corollary to the faulty persistence of human memory.). Snazzily attired and with a certain theatrical flourish to her diction, the award-winning poet commands the attention of all. The director of this «segment» quickly zooms into her eyes at a moment of high intensity and, with Netzkowa observing the television with her back to his camera, Kogler elects to end his film at precisely this juncture: editor Lukas Meissner cuts to black at the moment of maximum impact. In the finest short films, just as at the final phases of protracted lives, every split-second really does count.


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