Saturday, May 28, 2011

#108: Angst (Gerald Kargl, 1983)

Here's an interesting, neglected gem. Angst is an Austrian film about a serial killer that resembles few other serial killer movies. Most often compared to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Angst shares some similarity in tone with John McNaughton's classic but mostly exists in its own world. Never released on DVD or video in this country and many others, Angst can be downloaded from several cult film sites or tracked down on hard-to-find import DVD if you have an all-region player. It's worth the search.

I'm fascinated by directors who've made only one feature film, and Gerald Kargl fits the bill with Angst. A collaboration with Polish cinematographer/director Zbigniew Rybczynski, Angst was inspired by the story of mass murderer Werner Kniesek and contains quotes from several other murderers in the voice-over narration. Unlike many other serial killer movies, the protagonist here (Erwin Leder) is not a glorified, charismatic, evil genius. Instead, he's an insane, bungling, single-minded, almost stupid character whose crimes are poorly planned, messy, and chaotic. The film stays relentlessly on him, though it never tells us his name. We see the film almost entirely through his perspective, with the exception of two god's-eye-view shots at the beginning and end and a few quick shots of the victims.
The film opens with Leder in prison on the day of his release. Still a young man, he's already spent more than half his life locked up for the attempted murder of his mother and the random killing of an elderly woman. Released with no home and no plans for the future in a city he doesn't know, he wanders randomly to a strange cafe, where he eats a sausage dipped in mustard in extreme closeup and decides to begin another murder spree as soon as possible. He picks a female cab driver, but she becomes alarmed by his strange behavior and kicks him out of her cab on a deserted stretch of country road. He chokes and freezes, unable to go through with his poorly planned murder. He runs away, deep into the woods, and stumbles across a large, seemingly abandoned, sparsely furnished home. He decides to make it his base of operations, breaks a window, and crawls inside. Inside, he realizes the strange home is not abandoned and finds a mentally disabled, wheelchair-bound adult man. Soon, the man's elderly mother and adult sister return from the grocery store. Leder decides to torture and slowly murder the three, but his plans are thwarted by his own stupidity. I'll leave the rest for you to discover.

Though my description makes Angst sound like one of those dreary, depressing slogs with lots of torture and unpleasantness, the film is full of energy, offbeat but naturalistic humor, stellar performances, top-notch cinematography, and thoughtful shot compositions and camera movements. The score by ex-Tangerine Dream member and solo composer Klaus Schulze is also of high quality. This is a very good movie. I also need to mention that Angst contains the most entertaining wiener dog ever captured on film. Yes, you read that right.

This film contains some effectively stylized camera movements that aren't used to show off or wow the audience. Instead, they get you deeper into Leder's action, movement, and mental state. In some scenes, the camera is actually mounted to Leder's body as he runs or moves frantically. It's jarring, unsettling, and effective, and Kargl never overuses it. This placement of the camera has the odd visual effect of expressing simultaneous kinetic movement and an inability to move freely, a trapped claustrophobia. The film uses the camera to drive the story to its hilariously grim conclusion.

Another interesting aspect to this film that most other films with similar subject matter ignore is the messiness and work involved in murder. The cleanup, the moving of bodies, the repetitive brutality of making sure the person is truly dead, the blood, the broken glass and furniture, the inability to process the craziness of it. This guy isn't Hannibal Lecter. He's a nut, driven by impulse instead of intellect. He thinks he has some master plan, but his plan must continually change due to his own stupidity, the randomness of chance, the actions of his victims, and the intrusions of the world around him.

Kargl and Rybczynski aren't the guys you'd expect to make a darkly humorous yet brutal film about a serial killer. The two men wrote the film together, with Kargl directing and Rybczynski handling the cinematography. Rybczynski works steadily as a cinematographer and also directs short films and several Pet Shop Boys videos. Kargl never directed a feature film again, but he's worked steadily in film for most of his life. Prior to directing Angst, he created a successful film festival and published a movie magazine in Austria. Since Angst, he's worked as both a director of television commercials and an educational filmmaker for Austrian schools. On the strength of Angst, it's a real loss that he hasn't been able to make another feature. I strongly recommend this film.

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