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BAMcinematek’s Austrian film series showcases mavericks

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Austrian director Michael Haneke has been making unsettling dissections of contemporary society since his debut film, "The Seventh Continent" (1989), which matter-of-factly presented a middle-class family methodically preparing to commit suicide.

With stories like that, it’s no wonder Haneke hasn’t been enthusiastically received by critics or by audiences; that is, until his 2002 film "The Piano Teacher" swept the Cannes Film Festival with its shocking exploration of a repressed schoolteac­her’s sexual odyssey.

"The Piano Teacher" - which features Isabelle Huppert in a daring performance in the title role - is the obvious highlight of the BAMcinématek series, "Breaking Rules: New Austrian Cinema," which runs Nov. 13-23. "Breaking Rules" looks back at the last five years of Austrian filmmaking, which includes - as most European films (at least the ones we see here) seem to be - studies of social, political and cultural difficulties that are as far from the Hollywood ideal of brainless junk food as possible.

It’s too bad that more Haneke films aren’t included, like his latest (and still-unreleased) "Time of the Wolf." But "The Piano Teacher" (showing Nov. 22) is an excellent introduction to his relentlessly punishing style of filmmaking, and maybe this will convince BAM to bring a long-overdue Haneke retrospective to Brooklyn in the near future.

Another high-profile director, Ulrich Seidl, was prominently featured during the 2002 BAM Next Wave festival as the "Next Director." His latest film, "Jesus, You Know" (2003), opens the series on Nov. 13. A strange hybrid of documentary and voyeurism, "Jesus, You Know" shows six deeply religious people as they pray - out loud - in church. Seidl shoots them as they kneel down and look into the camera, making the viewer uncomfortably complicit in their tattered lives. Is he sympathizing with or mocking them? Only Seidl knows for sure.

One of the most successful Austrian films of recent years, "The Inheritors" (1998) - which won prizes and praise at festivals as diverse as New York, Toronto and Rotterdam - comes to BAM on Nov. 16. Stefan Ruzowitzky’s surprisingly nimble comedy is about socialism hilariously gone amok after the owner of a collective farm is killed and the workers take over its operation.

It’s unfortunate that sexism still exists in the film world today to the extent that it must be pointed out when female directors do good work (to distinguish them from often less-than-able male directors). But, by any standard, the women filmmakers of "Breaking Rules" are a talented lot.

"East of War," a 1997 documentary by Ruth Beckermann, ends the series on Nov. 23. "East of War" shines a bright light on a period that many Austrians, it seems, would rather keep hidden: the ultra-violent Eastern Front campaigns during the latter days of World War II, when many Austrians - even after Germany’s loss was no longer in doubt - partook in heinous war crimes.

Beckermann never flinches in her interviews with many armed forces veterans: although most of them own up to the fact that many horrific atrocities occurred, there are some who are still in denial, fighting tooth and nail to the end for a lost cause: defending those actions as just part of being at war.

"Lovely Rita" (2001), by Jessica Hausner (showing Nov. 15), is a relatively brief character study of a teenager - played with forcefulness by Barbara Osika - whose life is filled with hardships both within and outside of her family. Even at a mere 80 minutes, the oppressiveness of Rita’s existence is a bit much to take. It’s too bad Hausner didn’t take a cue from the beguiling, upbeat Beatles classic from which she gets her title.

Last month, the New York Film Festival showed Barbara Albert’s newest film, the disappointing "Free Radicals"; BAMcinematek is smartly showing Albert’s far superior debut from 1999, "Northern Skirts" (also showing Nov. 15).

Ostensibly a look into the lives of five teenage refugees from the former Yugoslavia at the height of the Bosnian War in 1995, Albert’s film is much more complex: by showing how these kids - especially the two girls we follow most often, played wonderfully by Nina Proll and the unforgettable Edita Malovcic - handle the difficulties of learning how to live in another country with all the odds against them, Albert creates a subtle and compelling portrait of a new Europe that hasn’t yet broken free from the shackles of the old.

Editor’s note: Additional films showing as part of "Breaking Rules: New Austrian Cinema" include: Sabine Derflinger’s "Step On It" (2002) on Nov. 14; Gustav Deutsch’s "Film Ist 7-12" (2002) on Nov. 14; Michael Glawogger’s "Megacities" (1998) on Nov. 16; Austrian experimental shorts on Nov. 18; New Austrian shorts on Nov. 20; Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s "Elsewhere" (2001) on Nov. 21; Florian Flicker’s "Hold-Up" (2000) on Nov. 22 and Martina Kudlacek’s "In the Mirror of Maya Deren" (2002) on Nov. 23.

 

BAMcinématek presents "Breaking Rules: New Austrian Cinema," Nov. 13-23, at 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene. Tickets are $10. For more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org

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