Film Review: Elisabeth Scharang’s “In Another Lifetime,” an Austrian period film of operetta and audacity premieres at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 21 –August 8, 2011
Austrian documentarian Elisabeth Scharang’s debut feature film In Another Lifetime makes its West Coast premiere at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Set in Austria in April 1945, during the chaotic final days of World War II, the film is one of the festival’s most interesting offerings and from its opening scene, cast in the natural light of the Austrian Alps, there is no turning away. Its subject matter—an operetta performance that offers hope and healing to both Jewish prisoners and their captors— hasn’t been tackled before in Holocaust film. Subplots of forbidden love, a marriage numbed by the devastation of losing a child, and risk-taking to do what’s inherently right pitted against insidious conformity all add up to a compelling story set within an ominous larger picture of mass death and evil. What sets this fictional period film apart, though, is its use of the palliative experience of music, specifically opera, as an escape from the surreal experience of war. The film is based on a play by screenwriters Silke Hassler and Peter Turrini.
The story begins as a group of 20 exhausted and starving Hungarian Jews are led on a forced death march by the German Wehrmacht through the back provinces of Austria towards the Mauthausen concentration camp. After a brief rest, an elderly prisoner refuses to fall back into line and marches off and is shot dead. One emaciated young man, with a mop of dark hair, plays a few piercing stanzas on his violin. Music is the connective tissue of this film and Scharang uses it brilliantly throughout.
Because the Wehrmacht are seeking to evade the approaching Red Army, they leave the small group of Jews stranded in a tiny Austrian village and entrust them to the village policemen and the Volkssturm (the “storm of the people” or people’s army, Hitler’s last ditch defense in WWII). Typically for this period, rural populations, now unbound from the authority of superiors, treated the Jews according to their own personal characters and beliefs, with results ranging from the kindest examples of generosity to the cruelest acts of barbarism. This group is locked in the hay barn of the Faschings, an embittered farmer and his sullen wife (Johannes Krisch and Ursula Strauss, paired again after their brilliant performances in Revanche, [2009, Austria], nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film). Exhibiting compassion and bravery, it is the maid Poldi (Franziska Singer) who first defies the rules to feed and communicate with the prisoners and then pulls in Traudl Fasching (Ursula Strauss), who is soon giving them all of her bread and soup and listening to their music.
The French cinematographer, Jean-Claude Larrieu masterfully bathes each scene in natural light, infusing even the most humdrum kitchen work and chores with Vermeer-like drama. The characters’ plain clothing, pale household interiors, stark barn and compositions all back up the Vermeer-like atmosphere, creating a series of mundane yet monumental freeze-frame portraits.
As is fairly typical in Holocaust literature and film, the inspirational figure who steps forward to buoy spirits is an artist—recall Adrian Brody, the title character in The Pianist [2002, USA]. When Péter Végh, as charismatic Hungarian tenor Lou Gandolf, senses the women’s compassion, he outlandishly proposes that their motley group stage Wiener Blut, a Strauss operetta, for the locals, and convinces them all that art for art’s sake—the humanity of music–is all that remains in this bleak situation. Gandolf’s curious display of sheer pluck is balanced by his character’s intuitive ability to be completely passive when necessary.
Hell breaks loose when Stefan Fasching (Johannes Krisch) discovers what his wife is doing in the barn and the great risk it poses for them in this tightly-knit community. It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off of Kirsch, who delivers a particularly intense performance as a man so hardened by the loss of his son that he too might as well be facing death. He is still deeply affected by music though, and once his fingers find their home on his old accordion, he softens and offers to play in the production.
Carefully selected music is one of the film’s most appealing features. The operetta Wiener Blut (literally “Viennese Blood” or “Viennese Spirit”) evokes both soft nostalgia as well as the indomitable Viennese spirit and will to survive, which encompasses the prisoners’ situation as well. The operetta is named after the spirited “Wiener Blut Waltz” (Op. 354) by the 19th –century “waltz king” Johann Strauss, Jr. composer of such frothy classics “The Bue Danube” (“Die Schönen Blauen Donau”), “The Emperor Waltz” (“Kaiser-Walzer”), and the operetta Die Fledermaus. Strauss waltzes remain the most powerful signifiers of old Vienna, nostalgically evoking the lost glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a time during which the Austrians retreated into light-hearted celebration of old-fashioned culture as a way of ignoring change. Emblematically, Wiener Blut unfolds against the glittering backdrop of the Congress of Vienna (November 1814- June 1815), a meeting of the Great Powers of Europe to agree upon the boundaries of post-Napoleonic Europe, but the operetta’s plot focuses entirely on the philandering of an Ambassador-Count who represents a tiny principality attending the Congress. In Another Lifetime also makes canny use of the title song of Rose Marie by Czech-born composer Rudolf Friml, a Viennese-style American operetta regarded as frivolous pop music at the time. Here it is played endlessly by an otherwise insignificant young Volkssturm officer who sequesters himself inside a seized home with a confiscated gramophone.
What finally transpires in this story makes In Another Lifetime one of the most gripping assemblages of character studies among the festival’s offerings. Elisabeth Scharang gradually and masterfully infuses us with hope, despite the forces of evil advancing just outside the barn. In the end, as we are left morally outraged, a beautiful and unforgettable image set some 60 years after the film’s main action ends shifts our thoughts to the responsibility and burden of those who witness mass violence. And a Strauss’ waltz, which has insistently worked its way into our subconscious, plays over and over again in our heads.
In Another Lifetime: Austria, Germany, Hungary, 2010, 94 min., in German and Hungarian with English Subtitles
Director: Elisabeth Scharang
Screenwriters: Silke Hassler, Peter Turrini,
Cinematographer: Jean-Claude Larrieu
Principal Cast: Johannes Krisch, Péter Végh, Ursula Strauss, Franziska Singer
Details: “In Another Lifetime” screens 4 times at the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 3:45 PM, Castro Theatre, San Francisco
Tuesday August 2, 2011, 8:55 PM, RODA Theatre (at Berkeley Rep), Berkeley
Wednesday, August 3, 2011, 8:30 PM, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, Palo Alto
Sunday, August 7, 2011, 1:40 PM, Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael
Tickets are $10 to $12.00 and can be purchased online or by phone at 415.621.0523. Tickets are also available for same day purchase at individual screening venues but screenings may sell out in advance. The 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (www.sfjff.org ), July 21-August 8, 2011, is the world’s oldest and largest Jewish film festival, featuring 58 films in all. There are 38 full-length films (23 documentaries and 15 narratives) and 19 shorts (10 documentaries, 1 narrative and 8 animations) from 16 countries. There are many free events too.