Friday, February 5, 2016


Angst (1983)
Dir.  Gerald Kargl
Written by Gerald Kargl, Zbigniew Rybczynski
Starring Erwin Leder, Robert Hunger-Bühler, Silvia Rabenreither, Edith Rosset,

So, here we go for another round of “You must never listen to ze tape!” ANGST is not a movie you will like. It’s not a movie you will enjoy. It’s not a movie that I liked or enjoyed, and I was willing to suffer through EBOLA SYNDROME and ADDIO ZIO TOM and shit and find things to like. Make no mistake, this is a thoroughly upsetting, utterly repellent movie. It’s also maybe some kind of masterpiece. It’s a miserable experience, to be sure, but it’s also an absolutely masterful one. So this is going to be another one of those cases like A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH where I am forced by my unremitting professionalism to acknowledge that this is a great work of art, but then must stress to you that you must never under any circumstances watch it.

ANGST is, first and foremost, an Austrian film. And “Austrian film” means one thing above all others: brutal, unflinching nihilism, usually under the pretext of punishing you for your previous enjoyment of movie violence which was not brutal, unflinching and nihilistic. It’s a national cinema driven almost entirely by the single minded pursuit of rubbing your face in just how bleak the human experience can be. It’s the cinema that made Japan say, “wow, maybe those guys took it a little too far.” It’s the cinema that gave us Michael Haneke, for fuck’s sake. It’s what Lars Von Trier wants to be when he grows up.

And it usually isn’t for me. Unlike all of Austria, apparently, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing that movies tend to make violence look fun and sexy. I’m comfortable understanding the difference between the real world and the highly visual, constructed fantasy world of film. I don’t think the things which are objectively bad in the former necessarily mean the same thing in the latter. And even if I did, I don’t know that there’s really much to be learned about it by going on a grueling journey of pure sadism, just to really drive home the point that violence is bad. And even if there was, I doubt many people who would actually be open to that idea are going to make it all the way through a humorless, graphic on-screen death march simply to learn it.

And ANGST is exactly that: it’s a unrelenting geek show of pure viciousness, utterly unredeemed by even the most modest spark of hope or humanism, however fleeting. It’s utterly nihilistic, and completely obsessive in its efforts to be as transgressive and repugnant as possible. But good lord, is it ever a stunning, jaw-dropping geek show of pure viciousness, utterly unredeemed by even the most modest spark of hope or humanism. I don’t know that it has anything very interesting to say, but the way it says it is absolutely spellbinding, even if it’s equally repellent in its content.

The first thing you have to admire about ANGST is its singularly stripped-down premise: an unnamed psychopath (Erwin Leder, DAS BOOT) is released from prison, and promptly goes to a random house and clumsily murders the family there. The end. That’s it, that’s all that happens, that’s the entire 83-minute (international cut) movie. Not a lot of story; in all honesty, not really any story as it is classically defined. There’s a few minutes of setup, and then a twitchy, jabbering maniac tortures, rapes, and murders an invalid mother, her developmentally disabled son, and her adult daughter, there’s a few minutes of denouement, and then the credits role. Nobody learns a lesson or has any conflict or anything; there’s no character development, I don’t think Leder has more than three or four spoken lines. The film has eyes for only one thing: the lurid, chaotic details of the crime, which it observes it exquisitely fine detail.

But it’s the way in which the film presents these crimes which is the real attraction here. Director Gerald Kargl (no other full-length films, but numerous shorts and documentaries, none of which appear to be available in English) and, especially, Polish cinematographer and co-writer Zbigniew Rybczyński (who had the previous year won an Academy Award for his short film TANGO, and who would go on to a prolific music video career), play the events of the film out in something very near real time, with the camera hovering anxiously around Leder in long, furtive takes, sometimes drawing back into the distance, sometimes lingering uncomfortably close to his leering, psychotic face, but alway making sure we feel trapped in his nightmarish world, unable to get free and guilty by association as we voyeuristically watch his rampage (through our fingers). It’s a similar trick to what Frank Khalfoun and Alexandre Aja pulled off in their 2012 remake of MANIAC -- using long, unbroken takes to refuse the viewer any relief from the company of an unhinged killer. There’s no escape for you here, no comforting edits to cut away when things get uncomfortable, no polite visual symbolism to exempt you from the awful deeds, no romantic subplot or comic relief to retreat to in horror. At least it lightens things up by occasionally panning away to footage of an adorable dachshund who doesn’t understand what’s going on and why his family is increasingly splattered all over the house. Who says the Germans don’t understand humor?

Rybczyński, though, is a much more ambitious visualist than MANIAC cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (who also lensed HAUTE TENSION and SILENT HILL: REVELATIONS). His camera is almost an equal character in this grim drama, intimately involved in the brutal choreography of the killings. It dances in and out of the action, restlessly circling, probing, leering, both sickly fascinated and numbly horrified. It’s clinical in its frank depiction of violence, but its perspective is so conspicuously subjective and motivated that it’s irrevocably implicated in the horror it’s observing -- and so are we, since we’re seeing though its eyes. It’s almost like the killer’s soul is trailing along behind his empty body, gazing on with shell-shocked clarity at the horror he’s inflicting without having any power to stop it, or perhaps even awareness that it could be stopped. It’s so intimately involved, and yet, just like us, its presence is entirely voyeuristic, empowered only to watch, not to intercede.

The fluid, unsettled drifting of the camera and the painfully protracted long takes which glide in and out of the brutality are, quite frankly, a marvel. They’re a strongly technical showpiece in riveting, intense cinematography, which would probably not be matched until CHILDREN OF MEN a quarter-century later. And while CHILDREN’s sequences similarly milk unbearable tension from long, fluid takes, they’re static and observational, lacking ANGST’s disturbed, restless energy. Really, the only thing which compares is the cinematography by Gaspar Noe and Benoît Debie on IRREVERSIBLE and (especially) ENTER THE VOID -- no surprise, then, that Noe has no less than three effusive quotes on the ANGST DVD box. The infamous rape scene from IRREVERSIBLE, in particular,  is such an obvious aping of ANGST that in retrospect it actually seems a lot less shocking, almost more affectionate homage than boundary-pushing audience punishment. It’s almost heartwarming how wholeheartedly Noe embraced the radical style of this little-seen film which tanked so badly --and, apparently, was reviled so deeply-- that neither of its central creators ever did another full-length film. Well, almost heartwarming. In order to make IRREVERSIBLE, Noe had to soften things up a little and at least have the protected rape scene be between two living people. I know, I know, you hate to see that kind of corporate, mercenary compromise, but it’s the nature of the business. But to the extent that any artistic endeavor with that context can be called heartwarming, Noe’s bromance with ANGST is definitely up there.

The Cinematography alone would make this something of a masterpiece, but if I’m not convinced it’s exactly smart or meaningful, there is something else kind of interesting going on here. See, Leder himself says almost nothing, and most of the characters he victimizes don’t really have much to say beyond groaning and pleading for their lives. But we’re also privy to the killer’s incessant inner monologue. From the instant of his release onwards, our psychopathic protagonist is breathlessly narrating his own life, meticulously cataloguing his miserable past, frantically strategizing about his next kill, obsessively documenting his reasoning. We’ve seen a lot of serial killer movies. I’d wager there have been more serial killer movies than there have ever actually been serial killers.* But rarely do we get this intimate a look into their inner world.** In a way, it’s kind of a relief when we first hear this guy begin to explain himself. Yes, he’s a monster, but what’s more terrifying than someone we can’t understand, someone who’s whole way of thinking dangerous and utterly unknowable? As we begin to explore his tormented inner world, there’s some comfort to be gleaned, if only because we cast some light into the darkness of this murderous enigma.  

Only… hearing his perspective doesn’t humanize him or diminish the terror. Because what he’s saying makes no sense. He sounds like he’s offering a breathless explanation for his abhorrent behavior, but what he’s saying doesn’t fit with what we’re seeing. Often, what he says will directly contradict the reality we’re watching, or even what he said two minutes ago. And do you know why? Because he’s fuckin’ nuts! Like ED GEIN, this is a rare serial killer movie which shows that there’s nothing sexy, or even interesting, about serial killers. “Psycho” means actually psychotic, not crazy like a fox. His actions have no connection to reality --because HE has no connection to reality-- and consequently he’s pathetically unable to formulate any kind of realistic plan, let alone play cat and mouse games with police or anything. His schemes are nonsensical, his stated motivations unsupported. Like Kurt Vonnegut describes in Breakfast of Champions, Mr. Angst simply has a brain full of bad chemicals. There’s no intellectual or emotional or even human motivation to act like this, he just has a medical condition that reduces his mind of a messy, violent jumble. It’s nihilism in the purest, least posturing sense of the word: this is all really happening for no reason at all. Intriguingly (unless I’m misunderstanding IMDB), the narration isn’t even spoken by Leder, but by Robert Hunger-Bühler (LABYRINTH OF LIES). It’s not even his own voice jabbering on in his head, it’s a bizarre stranger, narrating from some other dimension that only superficially resembles this one. Between the foreign voice babbling on about his life and the lurking camera peeping over his shoulder, the effect is one simultaneously uncomfortably intimate and terrifyingly disconnected.

Leder is tremendous in the role, giving it his absolute all in terms of sweat-soaked, wild-eyed, panicked intensity. And between him, the terrifyingly dissonant narration, the subtly bold psychology, and the mesmerizing filmmaking, this adds up to an unpleasant but undeniably brilliant unflinching look into the mind of a psycho killer. Splendid performances, deeply unsettling content, riveting cinema… but boy, it’s a tough watch. This is a film to respect --to survive-- not to enjoy (unless you’re Gaspar Noe). It’s as intense and scarring  a cinematic experience as you’re ever likely to have. But putting such a drastic focus on crafting an experience of searing intensity does work against it in some ways. The limited scope is part of its brilliance, but it’s also, well... limiting. It’s enormously admirable in its craftsmanship and in its audacity, but I sincerely doubt I’ll ever be inclined to revisit it, and even if I did, I rather suspect it would be to rapidly diminishing returns. Once you’ve survived the ordeal once, there isn’t a lot left to explore, except perhaps in a purely scholarly “I wonder how they pulled that off” sort of way. Cinema this powerful is not to be missed by those who truly care about the medium, but it may leave you with surprisingly little sign of of its passing. Experiences of great intensity are not always experiences of great depth, and like the mind of its central character, ANGST is full of feverish, enthralling mania, but not a lot of meaning.

But boy, that mania is something else to live through. I didn’t like ANGST, but I can’t deny it pulled me into its seedy world as adroitly and as imaginatively as almost anything I’ve ever seen. That’s worth something. I’ll never go back, but I’m glad to know what it was like to have gone. But your mileage may vary. That Kargl and Rybczynski have the power to take you on a utterly consuming journey is not in dispute. That they will take you anywhere you might want to go is another question entirely.

"it's reasonably entertaining, but other than some surreal camera-work, and a good performance from the lead actor, the film never rises above competent. There's one fairly graphic murder, but that cannot and does not salvage the film...And the film offers no reason for us to hate the killer. He's not very dastardly, nor smart, nor particularly brutal. He's just an average man, undertaking an average killing... By 2015 standards, it's positively pedestrian" -- Amazon reviewer PoochJD, who should definitely be on some kind of watch list. 

*I call this the “ninja ratio.” Other notable things which have more cinematic simulacrum than they have real-life examples include Sheriffs of small towns in the Old West, professional hitmen, beautiful high-end call-girls, presidential action scenes (exception: Teddy Roosevelt), and, of course, brilliant psychotic killers who play cat-and-mouse with the police.

**You can think of a few examples, of course; TAXI DRIVER, HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, AMERICAN PSYCHO, ONE HOUR PHOTO and --of course-- Gaspar Noe’s I STAND ALONE.


Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: The posters all say "Based on a true story," which makes it all the more unappealing.
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: None
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Maybe Leder?
  • BOOBIES: I don't know, but you wouldn't want any in here, I promise you
  • MULLETS: None
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: None, lots of stabbing but no chopping
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Not really; in some ways it's exactly like a home-invasion slasher, but the tone and the details are all wrong.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Oh hell yeah
  • VOYEURISM: Yes, both by the main character and, implicitly, through the filming.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, out of print and virtually unknown for years, until its abrupt blu-ray debut September 2015.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Oh, there's no moral here.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Angst means "fear" in German, I guess there's some fear to be had here.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Oh good God, what kind of monster do you think I am that I would show this to a lady?

I think the pure cinema on display here is too strong to give anything less, but be warned, you are sure to hate this movie and you will definitely be angry with me if you watch it based on my say-so. So, again, I urge you, DO NOT WATCH THIS STUNNING, LANDMARK ARTISTIC ACHIEVEMENT.

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