Far From Past / The Book of Sabeth Directors
Regissør: Nicole Foelsterl Florian Kogler
(Østerrike )

POST-WAR MIGRANTS LOOK BACK LIVED LIFE / Two short Austrian documentaries from Diagonale, the Austrian Film Film Festival, offer varied glimpses into the life and experiences of older post-war migrants in the capital Vienna.


Geopolitical has Østerrike has been an important European hub for much of the 20th century. The former imperial capital Vienna is actually further east than Prague and Zagreb. Partly because of its central location and excellent transport links – a fortunate legacy of time like Austria-Hungary – the city still remains a stopover for migrants and refugees en route to new destinations. But some of them choose to settle down – as the protagonists of the two outstanding card documentaries Far From Past > and The Book of Sabeth . Both were shown at Austria's national film festival Diagonale, which took place in the country's second largest city, Graz, in March.

Everything about my grandmother?

Nicole Foelsterls Far From Past is a welcome feature in a growing sub-genre where younger filmmakers use older relatives in their work. In most cases, the filmmakers are reluctant to acknowledge the blood ties. Foelsterl, on the other hand, is commendably direct and open about this relationship and the role it plays in her own creative process. "You only see half me, Nicole ... You can't see the whole!" Grandmother Marianne Schneider stomps in the opening minutes, while Foelsterl fiddles with her camera. The two sit at Schneider's kitchen table, where they will film an interview about the latter's unusual life. Schneider and her family belonged to the German-speaking Swabian minority in Hungary. She was around 18 years old when rumors of the Red Army's advancement drove the family to flee, first to Dresden and then to Austria, where she has apparently lived a quiet life since.

The analog format proves to be an effective and economical counterpart to it
the erroneous tenacity of human memory.

The Schneider family, as Marianne is careful to point out, was classified as "Germans" – but that did not mean that they were Nazis, a distinction that was hardly always as clear to storming commanders and soldiers in the Red Army. "If I tell you everything, then you have it on film," sighs the ninety-year-old grandmother, even though Foelsterl's film is not really about collecting impartial testimonies for the benefit of future generations. The film is basically far more of a portrait of this somewhat stern and life-threatening lady and what she herself goes through is her last year ("my life is over," she says distrustfully). Foelsterl recreates the somewhat fallible prism of memory that Schneider looks at through his past, but combines interview recordings with archive material: 8mm grainy home videos transferred to VHS, in addition to an earlier interview she filmed back in 1998. A younger Mrs. Schneider was also worried about it at the time. related to the presentation ("You can't even see me!" she laughs).


Far From Past is a complex and ambiguous work which, despite its seemingly short playing time, nevertheless conveys the partially strained interaction between the older and the younger woman. Schneider appears in a dissatisfied mood where she reads about refugees and immigrants who come to Austria and expect the state to take care of them. The irony of such an inhospitable attitude, given Schneider's own experiences in the 1940s, remains unsaid; then it is up to the viewer to bring it with them.

Far From Past / The Book of Sabeth Directors Nicole Foelsterl, Florian Kogler
Far From Past / The Book of Sabeth
Directors Nicole Foelsterl, Florian Kogler

At one point, Foelsterl gets frustrated when Schneider does not want to show her how to make a traditional Knödel dish. An upset Schneider is worried that the grandchild will cling to the recipe at an early but crucial stage. On another occasion, Schneider takes a break from filming to pick up the phone. Foelsterl (who is in the process of editing) shows up sitting alone at the kitchen table – the main scene in this so homely character study – with a facial expression that indicates that she with confused resignation, and not for the first time, realizes that her grandmother is just as much «director »In this film project as she herself is.

Sabeth's book

The Book of Sabeth. Despite all his (mainly) benevolent involvement in Foersterl's project, Schneider appears to be relatively self-effacing, a country woman who is neither accustomed to nor thrilled to be in the limelight. Elisabeth Arkadevna Netzkowa Mnatsakanjan (b. 1922), star of The Book of Sabeth by Florian Koglers, who studies at the Film Academy in Vienna, has, however, nurtured international notables for much of his life. She herself has also been the subject of considerable attention and praise. "You make me famous, but I've never been famous," she says modestly to her former student Andreas Schmiedecker, whose visit to her messy Viennese apartment is the main theme of Kogler's half-hour film.

In the finest short films, every second counts – just like in the last ones
stages of a long life.

But while showing off photographs of some of her friends: Nobel laureate in literature Heinrich Boell, former classmate Mstislav Rostropovich and the mentor Dmitry Shostakovich, it quickly becomes clear that Netzkowa – born in Baku in what was then the Soviet Republic Azerbaijan, and who, in their quest for greater artistic freedom, left the country in favor of Austria around 1975 – has moved into very high-profile environments. We understand that her own achievements are also significant: She is a renowned poet, gifted artist and pianist, and in 1975 received the Andrei Belyj Prize – one of the most important awards in Russian literature.

"The best of Russian culture."

When asked why Schmiedecker and Kogler wanted to film her in the first place, Schmiedecker answers: "You've had an interesting life, and you always have something interesting to tell." Netzkowa replies quickly: "Maybe it will help me live a little longer." Throughout, Kogler holds the camera quite close to Netzkowa's face in her eagerness to capture every word of the dialogue and every aspect of her expressive character. At the same time, this camera movement emphasizes her slightly frail appearance, which she accepts with reluctant dignity. Only once do we leave the apartment in Vienna, and that for a short intermission in the Albertina Museum, where some of Netzkowa's beautiful, original self-illustrated manuscripts are kept and treated with holy reverence by officials wearing white gloves, as they should.

But for the most part, attention is drawn to Elisabeth's restricted surroundings, and to how physical limitations have forced her to place further emphasis on what unfolds in the human mind. Her calling, or as she herself puts it, her "task" is to "share the best of Russian culture with the young". She believes that "the beautiful thoughts and ideas of great thinkers," like her beloved Dostoevsky, are absolutely crucial to nothing less than "the survival of mankind."

It therefore becomes clear how, in the mid-70s, she experienced the intellectual oppression of the Soviet state as so unbearable that she joined a prominent diaspora of dissidents and found refuge in Vienna – then as now a "stopover" for refugees. The first person she met in town was a woman of the same age, Lucia, whom we see in the movie where she comes by for a cup of tea and a lively passiar. The two have maintained a warm friendship, old age and physical decay despite. Interpersonal contact of this kind, which also includes visits by Netzkowa's former student Schmiedecker, is clearly helping to keep her going now that the centenary is just around the corner. "Perhaps my life has not been completely wasted," she ponders as she looks back on her accomplishments with modest pride.

The Book of Sabeth ends with a moving but unexpectedly uplifting ending where Netzkowa sits quietly watching a video of the speech of thanks she gave when she was awarded the Belyj Prize (as in Far From Past the analog format proves to be an effective and economical counterpart to the fallible steadfastness of human memory). Fashionably dressed and with a flourishing and slightly theatrical language, the award-winning poet catches everyone's attention. The director of this "cut" quickly zooms in on her gaze in a very intense moment. With Netzkowa sitting in front of the TV with his back to the camera, Kogler chooses to end the film at this crucial moment, which gets maximum payoff as film editor Lukas Meissner cuts to black. In the finest short films, every second counts – just like in the last stages of a long life.

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